By Ben Rappaport
Calling Aiesha Wilkinson’s move to Robeson County a struggle would be an understatement. She’s lived in the county for just five months, and she’s already gone through three jobs.
Wilkinson said she was recently fired from her job at a manufacturing facility because she couldn’t reliably get to work on time due to transportation issues. She doesn’t own a car, and she said the South East Area Transit System has been unreliable.
She’s once again unemployed, despite her work experience in medical offices, insurance sales and administration.
“I’m falling into a kind of depression here,” said Wilkinson, who moved to Lumberton due to family issues. “It’s tough when you know you have all the skills, but you can’t find a job because the transportation here could not be worse.”
Wilkinson attended a recent job fair in Fairmont, where more than a dozen employers set up, including Smithfield, Harger Electric and Waffle House. The Robeson County town regularly hosts job fairs in an effort to spur economic opportunity in the rural community where 56% of the 4,200 residents are Black.
More than 850 people have attended the job fairs in the 13 years since they began, and Mayor Charles Kemp says “a significant number” have found jobs.
“That makes me feel really, really good,” said Kemp, 77. “To know that I have been a part of a process to take a person off the street, find a job and change their life.”
Robeson County’s jobless rate, 4.7%, is higher than the statewide rate of 3.2%, according to September figures from the North Carolina Department of Commerce. Nearby Scotland County had the highest unemployment in the state at 5.6%.
About 31% of Fairmont residents lived in poverty in 2021, compared to about 27% in Robeson County, according to U.S. Census data. The average household income in the town was $30,800, which was nearly $8,000 less than the county average.
Kemp, who served as mayor from 2005 to 2013 and was elected again in 2021, said events like the job fairs are key to getting the town he grew up in back to the thriving place it once was. He’s helped organize 47 job fairs since 2010. The goal is always the same — get job seekers and providers in the same room.
“I’ve found more here than I thought,” Wilkinson said at the job fair last month. “What I’m really looking for is something I can do remotely so I don’t need to rely on this lack of transportation of Robeson County.”
Transportation is a major barrier for many seeking employment. About 89% of Robeson County workers drive to work alone, commuting an average 29 minutes. Only 4.4% of the county’s workforce works from home, compared to 32.2% in the state’s most populous county, Wake, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
In October, 21 people attended the job fair at the town’s community center. Kemp said attendance was much higher before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It breaks my heart to see unemployment around here,” Kemp said. “There’s something wrong with the current picture, and we need to be part of fixing it.”
Kemp established a 12-person jobs task force this year. The group is meant to help advise potential entrepreneurs in the area and encourage business opportunities in the town.
“Tornado Tank” is one result. Based on the popular television show “Shark Tank,” hopeful business owners present to the task force and get feedback and possible financial assistance. Kemp said the event isn’t quite as “vicious” as the TV show, but it’s a creative way to give business ideas more energy.
More than 15 entrepreneurs pitched their ideas during the first “Tornado Tank” in July. The second event is scheduled for mid-November.
Five businesses have opened in the Fairmont area since March, and more are expected to open before Christmas, The Robesonian reported. Together, they are expected to create more than 200 new jobs.
“The vibe here is more positive than I have ever felt,” Kemp said. “I’ve never felt the goodwill, the lack of acrimony and the positivity that we’re expressing in this town.”