Why Does This Rural Tennessee County Have Such Low Unemployment? Luck?

Louise Alaweneh took a welding job at the plant after working for years at the local hospital cleaning toilets. She says the work is hard but the pay is good. Average hourly wage is $17, according to plant manager Bill Miller. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLN

Louise Alaweneh took a welding job at the plant after working for years at the local hospital cleaning toilets. She says the work is hard but the pay is good. Average hourly wage is $17, according to plant manager Bill Miller. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLN

Just two places in Tennessee have had unemployment dip below five percent in recent months. They’re the two counties that consistently have the lowest jobless rates in the state, and they couldn’t be more different.

One is Williamson, one of the wealthiest spots in the country. The other is Lincoln. It’s a county with no corporate headquarters and no building boom. But it’s a place where just about everyone seems to have a job.

“Most everybody I know that wants a job has got a job,” says Jonathan Smith, who works at Goodman Manufacturing alongside his sister and parents.

Rolling farmland dotted with rusty silos and wooden barns make up most of Lincoln County, which sits on the Alabama border. In square miles, it’s a county that’s bigger than Metro Nashville. But there are just 33,000 people. And fewer than 900 are considered jobless.

Most who work in Lincoln County turn screws for a living, or something close to it. A handful of factories drive the local economy. Goodman is – by far – is the largest. In all, 1,500 employees build HVAC units from the ground up.

“We make plastic parts, we make wires, we make sheet metal,” says longtime plant manager Bill Miller.

Keeping Jobs In House

Instead of importing components from China, Miller says they’re made in house so the plant can respond to market demands. Sheets of metal are stamped and crimped into cooling coils as needed.

And looking around the factory floor, one can count on one hand the number of robots. Miller says there’s too much variability between small A/C units for homes and monster machines meant for hotels.

“Robots are very difficult to program for that kind of complexity,” he says. “Human beings are very trainable for that kind of complexity.”

And that’s why there’s still a hiring sign out front. Goodman needs people. It’s hard work, but it pays pretty well compared to other jobs around. Average wages are $17 an hour – much better than some of the hospitality jobs around.

“You can only clean so many toilets, and stuff, make beds,” says Louise Alaweneh, who left the local hospital to take a welding job at Goodman.  Then you come out here and you get a taste of really working.”

Lincoln County has lost some factories as companies found it more profitable to move overseas. But the area has also recruited new employers to replace them, like a big Frito-Lay plant.

Who Gets Credit?

“We’re lucky, I guess,” says John Ed Underwood, mayor of Fayetteville, the county seat.

Considering he’s a politician, Underwood doesn’t take much credit for the economic good fortune. He tries to bring new companies to town, but he finds corporate recruiting to be a game of chance.

One executive recently showed up on a Lear Jet.

“We talked with him, would have thought we done a good job selling Lincoln County and Fayetteville to him. He got on his plane, and we ain’t heard from him since,” Underwood says. 

Really, Lincoln County has held its own against the odds. It has no Interstate. A rail spur was recently shutdown. And it’s not like there’s been a construction boom of subdivisions or a surge in any particular industry.

Underwood figures there’s just been a good balance of people and jobs in Lincoln County, at least until now. Several local factories are expanding.

“Four of them are going to hire are going to hire as many as 600 new employees,” he says. “Where are they coming from?”

One More Thing

There’s no bite-size explanation for why Lincoln County has such low unemployment. But it certainly hasn’t hurt to be 30 miles from Huntsville.

“I work in Huntsville,” says Didre Smith. “I know several people who do.”

In fact, local officials estimate hundreds of people make that commute across state lines.

Smith has an administrative job in a doctor’s office – something she couldn’t find in her home county. She used to work in a nearby pants factory.

“I chose that that would not be my profession always,” she says.

But outside of being a teacher, there aren’t many non-factory jobs here that pay a decent wage, hence the number who drive to Alabama every morning.

Lincoln’s lack of white-collar work is a problem, but most counties this size would trade places in a heartbeat. Other rural areas – even just a few counties over – are battling double-digit unemployment.

Lincoln County is larger than Davidson (Metro Nashville), but it has just 33,000 people. And considering it's unemployment rate is hovering around five percent, that means fewer than 900 people are considered jobless. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNGoodman Manufacturing employs more than 1,500 workers, by far the biggest employers in the county. Previously, it was an Amana plant. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNGoodman is owned by a Japanese company now. But its HVAC units are still built in the U.S. The company has another Tennessee plant in Dayton. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNA stamping machine molds metal into usable parts. Goodman has had to layoff workers during downturns, but the company has operated in Lincoln County since the 1970s. Also, people tend to be surprised to find out it is a unionized plant. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNThe finished product. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNRolls of aluminum will be shaped into HVAC units. Goodman hasn't outsourced much over the years. Plant manager Bill Miller says that allows his company to respond to demands in the housing market. It also keeps people working. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNPlant manager Bill Miller (who is retiring) stands beside one of the few robots on the plant floor. Very little of the manufacturing process has been automated over time. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNThe cooling coils are assembled by hand. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNWhile many employees have worked at Goodman for upwards of 30 years, there's also a hiring sign still out front. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNHVAC units are built from the ground up, which takes people. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNOne reason Lincoln County has such low unemployment is that Goodman hasn't outsourced or automated much of its manufacturing process. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNFayetteville is the county seat. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNThe town square is cute, but it isn't a center of commerce. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNA theater, a barbershop and several restaurants surround the courthouse. Credit: Stephen Jerkins / WPLNFayetteville Mayor John Ed Underwood says maybe Lincoln County is just
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