Photo courtesy of Little Diversified Architecture/Lowe’s
The latest rendition of Lowe’s Cos.’ job shifts from its historic Wilkes County roots involves 680 positions moving to the headquarters in Mooresville and a technology center in Winston-Salem over the next six months. It continues a series of economic setbacks for Wilkes since the retailing giant moved its corporate office in 2003. It’s bad news, say local economic-development officials, but it could be worse because the region’s economy is fairly healthy, with several smaller industries hiring.
“You have to recognize that because of the Lowe’s decision, many families will be negatively impacted,” says LeeAnn Nixon, president of Wilkes Economic Development. “They’ll face tough decisions. Should they stay and commute? Move? Decide it’s time to do something different?” The company is encouraging workers to “transfer with their roles” and is providing relocation assistance or severance packages, Lowe’s spokesman Steve Salazar says. Some Wilkes workers may commute the 50 miles to Mooresville.
The shuffle began when Lowe’s moved its headquarters and 1,000 workers from North Wilkesboro, where it was founded in 1946 as a hardware store, to Iredell County. Lowe’s peak employment in Wilkes was about 2,800. “Lowe’s tells us before this latest move that they had about 2,000 positions, and now that will go down to about 1,300,” Nixon says.
Wilkes is classified as a Tier 2 county in the state’s three-level rating system, reflecting moderate economic distress. But things have improved significantly since unemployment peaked at 14.7% in February 2010. The most recent count is only slightly higher than the statewide average of 4% in March. The county’s biggest private employer, Tyson Foods, has about 3,000 staffers.
Smaller Wilkes industries and businesses are hiring. “Just coincidentally, we had a job fair the week after the Lowe’s announcement,” says Nixon, with 54 employers and 260 job-seekers. “We have a strong back-office industry, and Samaritan’s Purse just announced it’s hiring 150 people.” Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian relief agency. “They’re breaking ground soon on a new building, and they already have several hundred working here.”
Beef production and contract poultry farms that supply Tyson bolster the economy. The economic-development corporation recently announced a small-business grant competition with awards of up to $6,000. “We’re reviewing more than 20 applications now,” Nixon says. “We’ve got a variety of ages — young, middle and older — and some of those are Lowe’s employees who’ve always wanted to do this. They figure now’s the time.”
Salazar says the transfers will boost Lowe’s Mooresville employment to about 4,400. CEO Marvin Ellison has shaken up the management roster and strategy at the nation’s second-largest home improvement chain since arriving last July.