By REBECCA HAZEN
Dade County Industrial Development Authority’s Executive Director William Back and Chair Peter Cervelli met with the Sentinel to discuss wages, employment, and the future of Dade County’s different business industries.
The average wage in Dade County is $14.73 as of July 1, 2021, which is up 8.8 percent from 2020’s average wage of $13.53.
“There weren’t big increases in prior years. In 2018 and 2019 the wages increased maybe 20¢ a year. The big increases have come in the last two years,” Back said.
Wage increases in Dade County have exceeded the inflation rate. Inflation increased 17.89 percent from January 2016 to December 2021. In that same time period, industrial wages in the county rose from about $11 an hour to $16 per hour, which is an increase of roughly 45 percent.
Expansions among existing businesses have added 350 jobs over the past four years, all with starting wages significantly higher than wages of five years ago.
“All of the larger companies here were experiencing high turnover. People were coming and going, cycling from company to company to get 25 to 50¢ more. That is expensive for employers. Raising the rates has reduced turnover,” Back said.
Also, to counter turnover, the IDA has encouraged manufacturing businesses to invest in programs that offer pre-employment training programs, such as mechatronics and internships. This way, the businesses can afford to pay higher wages because the employee is already familiar with the employer’s needs, and it saves the cost of retraining.
The unemployment rate in Dade County is currently 1.6 percent, which is down from 2.1 percent in August 2021. The unemployment rate spiked to 7.7 percent in April 2020 during the beginning of the pandemic, then dropped to 3 percent by Nov. 2020.
Back and Cervelli say that Dade County has enough workers to support industrial development.
Workers come from six counties in three states, and people are consistently moving to the county.
However, a hurdle that needs to be overcome is housing. Matter-of-factly, Cervelli and Back said that Dade County does not have enough housing for a potentially growing workforce.
“Not all housing is equal. Our workforce is not going to be buying $300,000 houses. There’s no place to go. The need is in rental housing,” Cervelli said.
The IDA would like to see more people move to Dade County that would be willing to work in the county than in Chattanooga, Tenn., or neighboring towns. About a third of the county’s work force commutes to Chattanooga.
Chattanooga does offer an average $1.50 to $2 higher wage, but Back and Cervelli said to keep in mind that a 25-mile commute costs the equivalent of about $3 per hour in gasoline, car maintenance and extra commuting time.
The IDA has witnessed existing businesses continue to hire more people. In addition, with improved internet access all over the county, many home-based and small businesses have been coming here.
“We’re talking to more and more people who have come here from other places, and they are working from their homes. This is another form of growth, small businesses.” Back said.
Back continued, “I think the future is going to be smaller businesses coming to the community. We’re looking for quality over quantity. We’re looking not so much at manufacturing, but small businesses coming to a small community.”
“Our priorities going forward I think should be companies with smaller populations and higher wages, not 400-people companies anymore. It’s going to be companies that generate a lot of sales tax because that goes directly into the pockets of the community,” Cervelli said.
The IDA hopes to attract clean industry that pays well to the county. These industries include agriculture, manufacturing, home building, tourism, and warehousing, if associated with a local manufacturer.
The IDA does not want businesses in Dade County such as timber processing, large-scale recycling, slaughter houses, landfills and rail yards; anything that would reduce the quality of life in the county.
“What we need is more land with utilities. We only have one piece of property left in the Industrial Park. We have tried to buy property, but it is challenging right now. There are other places in the county that we are looking,” Cervelli said.
The IDA is also looking into industries that will generate more tax revenue for the county.
“We’re looking at potential retail. A target area is [State Route] 299 right off of I-24, but then there are infrastructure issues we have to deal with, like water,” Cervelli said.
“The simplest statement we can make is that we seek to entice private investors to invest in this community,” Back said. “We want to preserve as much as the small hometown community feel as much as we can.”