Pierce’s empathy, experience benefit 300 who were laid off
By Sarah Colson
When CSX Transportation announced it would close its Erwin, Tenn., operations, laying off around 300 employees, Kathy Pierce and the Alliance for Business and Technology (AB&T) began working to help those 300 individuals re-enter the workforce.
Pierce, AB&T’s executive director, immediately oversaw the opening of a temporary AB&T Career Center in Erwin. The center is on ETSU property at 1413 North Main Street, and will serve until a larger site is opened later this month or in February.
“We’re going to look for approximately 4,000 to 5,000 square feet,” Pierce said. “We’ll have a fully functioning computer lab there. We will be offering specialized classes for career readiness certification, basic and advanced computer training, academic preparation and a number of other customized training programs for the folks there in Erwin.”
The AB&T has also put in seven different applications for a total of $668,000 in Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development funding, Pierce said. “I was told unofficially by the staff that they’re going to send us a check,” Pierce said in mid-December, “so we are going to be moving forward ASAP.”
Pierce has also met with leaders of the Distance and Evening Education program at Northeast State Community College to design a specialized class in college math and chemistry with the specific aim of making those who pass it eligible to apply for positions at Nuclear Fuel Services, also in Erwin.
The CSX closure, Pierce said, was the most complicated she’s ever witnessed, mainly because of the number of different labor unions involved, each with their own bargaining agreements. “It has both complicated things and also given us an opportunity to reach out to the workers.”
Pierce maintains a positive outlook fostered by her parents, who encouraged her to go to college despite having only one high school diploma between them, and from the experience of having been laid off herself in the mid ‘80s. Pierce worked during that time for Unisys Computers in Bristol. Her job moved to Mexico, leaving her overqualified and unemployed.
“It absolutely devastated me because I had all these credentials,” she said. “I had done all the things I thought I was supposed to do and losing my job was really difficult. I came into this line of work as a result of that. I started with AB&T being the dislocated worker coordinator and so I had a special place in my heart for people I sat across the table from who were in the same position that I had been in previously. So it has never been just a job. It has been a calling. I’ve had the opportunity to give back over the course of my (28) years here.
“I know what being out of a job feels like,” Pierce said. “I know what it means to a family when that happens. So we have moved rapidly to set up a service capacity in Unicoi County that had not been there before. I say to people, if I can do it, you can do it. It just takes perseverance and a little extra bit of energy.”
Pierce’s unfailingly positive demeanor is encouraging to individuals who are facing hard times, but, she said, it’s not a facade. “It’s just who I’ve always been and I’ve just tried to channel it in a way that is productive and that encourages other people,” Pierce said, adding that she’s nothing special, just someone who has a set of experiences and is doing her best to help other people as a result of that. “I’ve just done what millions of other people find themselves needing to do in the current work environment.”
Situations like the CSX closure, Pierce said, are worst-case scenarios. In the most ideal situation, AB&T help employers sustain the employees they already have.
Pierce said that she has seen workforce development evolve from what was originally narrow and not well-understood into something much more vital for the economic development and health of a region. Pierce refers to a recent survey of site selectors that states workforce development is now “recognized as the number one factor in determining business expansion, business relocation, business development and the economic health of a region.”
Because of that, Pierce at AB&T and her partners in the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development take their jobs of promoting and maintaining economic health of Sullivan, Washington, Carter, Johnson and Unicoi counties very seriously. And with the closing of CSX and the shift from a manufacturing-dependent workforce to a more skills-focused emphasis, Pierce and her team are making sure those in the region have all the resources necessary to provide for their families.
Some of the resources Pierce said employers are looking for in an employee these days require constantly updating skill sets, additional on-the-job training and post-secondary education.
“We focus both on people who are already in the work place who need additional skill training,” she said, “and those who are trying to get into the work place to make sure that they are able to earn those higher wages and thereby economically benefit our whole region. We are also in the business of retaining the jobs that we have. It’s a lot more cost effective and more efficient to keep the employers that you already have in your region than it is to go out and try to recruit someone new to come in.”
At the same time, employees must take the initiative to keep themselves hirable. “It really is more difficult than it used to be,” she said. “That’s why you have to be so focused. It’s why you have to get additional education. It’s why you really have to keep your skills sharp and be a lifelong learner. You don’t just finish school at whatever level, get a job and stop. You have to keep that focus on what can I learn, what can I do to improve myself, what can I offer to the employer, not what can the employer do for me. What benefit can I be to help my employers succeed?”
Those same questions are the ones facing the laid off CSX employees, many of whom are trying to find new jobs despite being close to retirement age. “It won’t be easy,” Pierce said. “It will take a lot of courage on their part to get involved early and to stick with it when things get a little tough, but the good news is that we and other partners in our system, folks from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the training providers are working on making that happen.”
Jeff Keeling and Scott Robertson contributed to this report.