What keeps you awake at night?
That was the question U.S. Rep. Phil Roe asked area female business representatives during a town hall on Wednesday at the Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce.
Roe asked members about issues important to them locally and nationally from immigration to divisive rhetoric, starting with the diversity of business and industry in East Tennessee – and why the area has a workforce development issue despite Tennessee offering a free community college and technical college education.
“There are 7.5 million jobs open in the U.S., and three companies heading to Morristown with more jobs,” he said. “We have a lot of people who could have a job if they had the skills, instead of sitting on the sidelines.”
Roe then fielded questions about how the rural areas of the state, including Hamblen County and surrounding counties, are losing younger job seekers and college graduates to larger cities.
“Our young people are leaving. There are 3,100 counties in the country, but only 20 of them make up half of all business formation. We’re becoming city-states, and we need to change that,” said Roe, who represents Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District. “Our college graduates are moving to Nashville, Knoxville and other bigger cities. Our rural areas are losing their people.”
One solution Roe offered is the region has to promote job growth by offering wages commensurate with larger areas.
“If we offered more competitive pay to the other areas, people will stay. This is a great place to live,” he said. “We have the Great Smoky Mountains, the attractions of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, along with other areas.
“We’re in a great situation.”
The Lakeway region is in great shape compared to nearby areas economically, Roe told the panel.
“Southwest Virginia has a much worse problem than we do. That area has to reinvent itself because of the death of coal,” he said. “Southwest Virginia is a place you go to bury your grandfather, not to find a job. We’re in a much better situation here in East Tennessee.”
Tennessee has a nursing shortage, leading to 12 hospitals closing in the state over the last few years. This is the third-most closings in the nation, trailing only Texas and Alabama. Tennessee is also one of the lowest-paying states for nurses, despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting the field is expecting to grow at least 15% by 2026.
Roe said this is part of a total failure in the healthcare system.
“Healthcare has become extremely expensive. There are a lot of things we need to do to fix this problem,” he said. “We have to deal with high premiums where many people can’t afford health insurance. We also have to keep the nurses we have in the area.”
Recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio had a few members of the panel worried about gun rights and possible restrictions – and asked Roe his feelings about the situation.
“We have to figure out how to protect gun rights and due process, and keeping guns out of the hands of crazy people,” he said. “People shouldn’t fear going into a Wal-Mart with their kids wondering if they’re going to get shot.
“We need to focus on mental health issues and figure out what’s going on with these troubled men, and keep guns out of their hands.”
At the end of the town hall, the subject of division between Americans over politics and the current presidential administration that is tearing apart families and friendships, especially through social media was broached.
“For the most part, the TV business makes a lot of money in ads putting nonsense on,” Roe said. “The crazier people get with what they say during the 24-hour news cycle, the more they air it.
“I’ve worked together with many Democrats on legislation over the years, and we’ve kept our political views.”