Cecil County Economy: Two Employers Contrasts, Florklifters vs. Skilled Tech Jobs; Store Cashiers Top Future Job Growth
Cecil County had some good economic development news this week, for a change, with the formal announcement of 700 jobs with online retailer Amazon coming to a mega-warehouse near Perryville. But enthusiasm should be tempered with a dose of economic reality on the shortcomings of the local workforce and the paucity of better-paying tech jobs that could expand the local economy and taxbase.
While Amazon will bring warehouse operations, employing forklift operators and order-pullers to its “fulfillment center” at a new 10-year leased facility at the Principio business park off Route 40, the quality of the local county workforce and job creation expectations do not bode well for the future in Cecil County, where a new study of workforce skills and expected job opportunities projects that the highest number of new jobs through 2022 in the area will be for low-paid store cashiers.
At the same time, a high-value new employer in the county that has built a permanent, owned and operated facility had a positive workforce view—because it recruited computer and technology-savvy workers from other areas.
John Ragone, managing director of energy development partnerships for Old Dominion Electric Co-operative, told the Cecil County Council this week that the new Wildcat Point electricity generating plant in Conowingo had no problems recruiting highly skilled and computer-savvy workers for the 30 permanent, full-time jobs at the power plant that is currently under construction and expected to begin operations this summer. But those skilled workers came from a geographically broad area, from Baltimore to Harford County to southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“We’re very pleased with the quality of staff” Old Dominion was able to hire from workers “within a one hour drive” of the Conowingo facility in the northwestern area of Cecil County, Ragone said. “You should sell that story” to other potential employers, he told the County Council. “It may be a small county” but its location gives area businesses access to “multiple labor markets,” he added.
Old Dominion already operates an adjacent but smaller electricity-generation facility, Rock Springs. The two facilities, operating under a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) agreement that sets fixed, long-term payments to the county instead of being subject to fluctuating annual property tax rates, pays the county $3.6 million a year in tax payments, with a total of $120 million in PILOT tax payments to the county before regular property tax assessments kick in. Overall, the two power plants provide over $1 billion in economic value to the county, Ragone said.
A power plant, built, owned and operated by Old Dominion, is not going anywhere. A leased Amazon warehouse with just a 10 year commitment is a long term question mark. National investigative news accounts, including a New York Times series, have documented workplace issues involving Amazon and a culture of churning relatively low-paying jobs and replacing workers who are burned out by the high-paced stress and physical demands of the warehouse jobs.
The contrast between the small number of skilled Old Dominion jobs and the much larger number of low-skilled jobs with Amazon underscores the conclusions of a new study by the highly respected Baltimore economist Anirban Basu, CEO of the Sage Policy Group, presented to the Cecil County Economic Development Commission on 1/4/2017.
The study, which included Harford County as well as Cecil County, found that the federal government was currently the largest employer in the region due to the presence of the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. But previously anticipated highly-skilled jobs at Aberdeen under an expansion and consolidation of jobs from New Jersey have failed to materialize and the future of new job creation over the next five years shows the local jobs picture is for low-wage, low-skill retail, cashier and fast food jobs.
In descending order, the top ten local occupations through 2022, the report projected, would be cashiers, retail store salespersons, waiters/waitresses, laborers and freight movers, janitors, stock clerks, fast food servers and preparers, supervisors of retail workers, secretaries and administrative assistants, and general managers.
A significant part of the problem is the generally poor quality of the local workforce. As the Sage Policy Group’s recent analysis reported, a significant portion of the local workforce can’t pass a pre-employment drug test or criminal record background check; lacks education and training for all but the most basic jobs; and many have no interest in advancing their skills to improve their employment prospects.
And “There is a general lack of emotional intelligence and interpersonal communications skills among an unacceptably high fraction of incoming workers,” the report noted, following focus groups with area employers.
Add to that the fact that Cecil County routinely gets negative statewide, national and even international attention for its high drug abuse rates, crime and embarrassing political shenanigans, such as the recent conviction of Cecil County State’s Attorney Edward “Ellis” Rollins III on indecent exposure and disorderly conduct charges involving sex acts and nudity. Rollins still holds on to his taxpayer-paid job, while the state Attorney General Brian Frosh stays mum under questions about whether he will fulfill state Constitution-specified powers to remove a State’s Attorney from office upon “conviction” of a crime.
Why would a major business want to locate a new, costly employment center in such a place? All the positives about the county that local residents know and love have a hard time breaking through the statistics and bad “kharma.”.
Adding to the county’s image issue is a small but noisy band of “keyboard commandos” who populate social media and the occasional Citizens’ Corner session before the County Council with attacks on the modest allocations of county aid to help bring new employers to the county. The Campaign for Liberty, a small group of anti-government activists, attacked the modest county investment of $120,000—drawn from “impact aid” revenues from gamblers at the Hollywood Casino in Perryville—to serve as a required 10 percent matching loan/grant in order to secure a $1.2 million state loan/grant investment in the Amazon project.
The failure of Cecil County’s then economic development office team to respond with such incentives last year led to the loss of nearly 200 jobs at the C&S Wholesale Foods warehouse operations. Instead, the jobs went to Prince George’s County, where local officials waged an aggressive campaign to save 700 C&S jobs there, using county and state aid programs to save and expand their local facilities—at the expense of Cecil County jobs.
[SEE CECIL TIMES Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/02/cecil-county-loses-192-jobs-outgunned-by-pg-county-with-state-aid-to-save-700-jobs-there/ ]
Yes, in a perfect world the “free market” would decide where employers locate their operations without any local or state aid. But take a reality check: Cecil County is not the most desirable location for a major employer to invest millions of dollars, apart from its fortunate location along the Interstate 95 corridor and access to rail freight lines.
The county’s “growth corridor” between I-95 and Route 40 still has significant sections that lack basic public water and sewage services or natural gas availability and limited or non-existent high-speed Internet services. Businesses looking to locate in neighboring Harford County and Delaware sites can take such services for granted.
And as the Sage Policy Group’s recent analysis reported, there are significant problems with the local workforce, both in terms of education and training and what the study indicated is a weak work ethic among many workers. The study noted particular issues with “millennials,” who employers feel lack basic “respect for authority” and demand work schedule flexibility or work from home options that do not fit into the employers’ needs.
Cecil County’s economic development future is troubled by multiple problems that won’t be solved overnight. A key component will be willingness to address some basic cultural, educational and public services shortcomings in the county.