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New retail stores searching for employees in tight labor market

Sharon Caskey Hayes • Aug 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM

From left, Carla Pearson, Dwight Parrish, Joey Smith (seated) and Tonya Long organize the Target office at the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center in preparation for Target’s mass hire this week. Ned Jilton II photo.


As many as 1,100 jobs will be created at the new Kingsport Pavilion on the east side of town, and shopping center anchors Target and Kohl's are already signing up prospective employees to join their teams.

Lowe's is hiring about 150 people to staff its new home improvement store on the west side of town.

And more jobs will soon be created with the construction of new stores such as Panera Bread and Starbucks on Eastman Road.

With the region's low unemployment rate, are there enough people to fill all the jobs?

"That's going to be one of our greatest challenges for the future," said Jeff Fleming, Kingsport's assistant city manager for development. "It's going to be tough."

According to the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the unemployment rate for the Kingsport and Bristol metropolitan area was 4.2 percent in June, down a full percentage point from 5.2 percent during the same period in 2006. The metro area includes Hawkins County and portions of Southwest Virginia.

In Sullivan County alone, the unemployment rate was 4.1 percent in June.

"It's an extremely low unemployment rate," Fleming said.

"One of the main benefits of having these stores is the quality of life opportunities that it brings for our citizens to shop and acquire the things that they want to acquire locally. But the challenge is finding the people who want to work there," he said.

Target set up an office inside the MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center to field inquiries about the new store and to accept applications for employment. Joey Smith, an assistant manager for the company, said the response has been "huge." He said Target held a "mini hire" for new managers a couple of weeks ago, and 150 people showed up to apply for 21 positions.

"The response was double what we had in Bristol" at Target's new store there, Smith said.

In all, Target expects to hire 145 to 180 people at the new Kingsport Pavilion store. The company will hold a "mass hire" at MeadowView this week. Applications will be taken from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. The store is scheduled to open in mid October.

"We're confident we'll be able to hire the employees we need. The response has been overwhelming," Smith said.

Kohl's is also hosting a job fair this week at MeadowView. The company is taking applications from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 12; from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 13; and from 12:30 to 7:15 p.m. Aug. 14 and 15. Available positions include register operators, department associates, customer service associates, loss prevention officers, early morning freight unloaders, housekeepers, and evening pricing associates. Those interested can also apply online at www.kohlscareers.com or call 1-877-639-5645.

Old Navy and Shoe Carnival are also coming to the Kingsport Pavilion and will soon start their hiring process.

In all, Kingsport Pavilion is expected to include about 30 retail stores and restaurants. The 625,000-square-foot complex will be built in two phases on 78 acres off Highway 11W.

Lowe's has also been searching for new hires. The company has opened an office inside the Fort Henry Mall to accept applications for the new store, located next to Wal-Mart on West Stone Drive.

Chris Bare, store manager for the new Lowe's, said the company is transferring about 50 experienced employees from stores across the region to the new Kingsport location.

The company held a "mass hire" last week to fill the majority of the remaining positions.

"I anticipated more turning out for the mass hire. However we've had sufficient quantities to staff our store with good quality people," Bare said.

He said he's taken roughly 500 to 600 applications. About 150 people are expected to staff the new facility. The store is expected to open in early to mid-October.

Reedy Creek Terrace is also under construction on Eastman Road. The 45,000-square-foot complex will include retail, restaurants, commercial and professional offices. So far, Panera Bread, Starbucks and Talbot's have signed up to join the shopping center.

The new retail construction activity was sparked by the opening of East Stone Commons, a 275,000-square-foot shopping center at the intersection of Eastman Road and Stone Drive. Developer Roger Ball built the complex where the old Kingsport Mall once stood. East Stone Commons was expected to create about 600 jobs.

Steb Hipple, economist at East Tennessee State University, said the latest labor market information shows strong growth in employment in the region, "which of course means that there is a further tightening of the labor market."

"The pool of workers available has been substantially reduced," Hipple said.

The latest labor market figures are scheduled to be released by ETSU this week.

Fleming said that new retailers to the city may have to tap older, mature workers who may have already retired from career jobs.

"I would think we're going to have to see a lot more people who have taken early retirement, who are just looking for something to do to keep them busy," Fleming said. "That means non-traditional retail workers are going to have to be targeted for these jobs."

Steve Vinsant, manager of the Tennessee Career Center in Kingsport, said prospective employees will not only come from Kingsport, but surrounding communities as well.

"We draw from Hawkins County and Southwest Virginia," Vinsant said.

But, Fleming said, "how far can you drive based on the pay you're going to get?"

"They are retail jobs, and while competitive, retail is not historically the highest paying, and the hours are sometimes inconvenient for people," he said.

The new retail stores may encourage discouraged workers who've been out of the job hunt for awhile to get back into the labor force. They also may encourage retirees to return to the workplace.

And the new stores will bring new faces to Kingsport.

Smith, an assistant manager with the new Target, said that five of that store's managers are moving here from Knoxville or Chattanooga. Smith, originally from Bristol, Tenn., is moving back to the area from Knoxville.

But many of the new store employees will simply jump ship from existing retail establishments. One of Target's new assistant managers, for example, just joined the company after leaving his job at Tractor Supply in Bristol.

"That's going to leave job openings at other stores around the area," Fleming said. "More ‘Help Wanted' signs."

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