Columbia residents would like to see business leaders offer a hand to citizens on the lower rungs of the employment ladder.
People who are unemployed or working without a college degree should not be forgotten during the next 25 years of economic development, they say.
Business owner Mike Zimmerman, 46, worries it’s already happening.
“(In) the last 10 years I’ve seen a real lack of business leaders trying to get factory jobs here,” he said. “They’re real good about trying to promote the high-end jobs.”
Though there’s a need for high-tech industry, Zimmerman said, “there’s also a need that’s not being met for manufacturing jobs.”
James Rutter, 54, agrees. The Columbia native said the city needs medium to heavy industry to foster a vibrant economy, because its light industry has limitations.
“I’d like to see good jobs here,” Rutter said. “It has been something that has really been lacking in this community for a long time.”
Rutter would like to see more jobs in places such as auto parts manufacturing but said “our labor market is so tight it’s tough to do that.”
Poor sales and layoffs have plagued domestic automakers nationally in the past two years and affected jobs at Columbia’s auto parts makers. About 200 auto workers lost their jobs at Summit Polymers in December 2006. Another 250 workers faced uncertain employment at Collins & Aikman in March when company spokesman David Young said the business’s potential closing date had been extended after evaluating customer needs.
Zimmerman, who’s owned Zims Vending since 1991, said that when auto jobs are cut, there aren’t other manufacturing jobs to replace them. Still, every community, including Columbia, has residents whose primary opportunity to make a living comes through factory jobs, he said.
Communities also benefit from factory jobs because they create money, while service-sector jobs “just push money back and forth,” Zimmerman said.
Justin Dijak, 23, said Columbia has seasonal service jobs as a result of having a lot of college students, but the students and anyone who hasn’t earned a college degree have difficulty finding non-seasonal work that pays a livable wage.
Once students graduate, however, they become tough competition among job seekers.
“With (MU, and Stephens and Columbia colleges) turning out students all of the time who end up staying here, it’s hard to find a job where you don’t need a degree,” Dijak said.
The Columbia native worries about the future as the city’s population grows.
“I don’t want to lose that comfort of a town this size, where I can see all of the people I know and still earn a living,” he said. “It just seems like there’s a lot more people coming to Columbia because they’ve heard it’s a good place to live.”
H.E Wilkerson, who’s lived in Columbia since 1954, said he knows a lot of senior citizens who retire to Columbia because of its reputation. He wants to see Columbia remain a nice place, but he also hopes it will encourage the development of more small businesses, he said.
As the city grows, it might be challenged to provide electricity and water to new businesses and residents, and that should be its first priority, Wilkerson said.
But what kinds of jobs should Columbia have for its new and existing residents?
Those that pay higher wages and build up the local economy, Cassie Levett said.
“I would like to see more mom-and-pop, locally owned stores,” she said. “There’s just too many corporate-run stores like Old Navy.”
Levett, who works at Gotcha Costume Rental on Tenth Street, believes a goal of economic development should be to “keep more money in the actual community and the people who live here.”
Without jobs that provide financial stability for the unemployed and homeless, Columbia could see more crime and drug problems, Homer Page said.
“Columbia needs to pull together and provide substantial jobs for this sector of the job market,” he said. “The jobs will keep their time occupied, (leaving) less time to live on the streets.”