At time, home is where the work is
- Published: April 10, 2014
EYE ON OUR ECONOMY: This is the fourth in a series of articles examining the economic landscape of Yellow Springs.
Like many of today’s college graduates, Emma Woodruff left Antioch College under a mountain of debt and with few job prospects. So she fell into a growing local industry catering to tourists and residents — accommodation and food service — working stints as a Sunrise Café server and in the kitchen of the Emporium Café.
But the 28-year-old local musician is having a hard time paying off the debt she incurred getting her 2008 performing arts degree. When unemployed last year, Woodruff was able to crash at different people’s homes in town because of the “safety net” of the Yellow Springs community, she said. She is now looking for a stable, higher-paying job to afford a place of her own — perhaps a job out of town — but is not confident in the current market.
“Living and doing my art is important but I’m starting to realize that in order to sustain a life here, currency is a huge thing,” Woodruff said. “Food service is not something I want to do forever.”
Forty years earlier the experience of a then 19-year-old high school graduate Susan Miller couldn’t be more different. Miller, without a college degree, walked into the office of Kettering Research Laboratories near the Antioch campus and was hired on the spot. The place was “vibrant,” she said, with workers ranging from janitors to Ph.D. scientists. After working there until the business closed in the 1980s, Miller was unemployed for less than two weeks before landing a position at YSI, Inc., where she worked until retirement a few years ago at age 62.
Even without a college education, Miller had no problem finding work in Yellow Springs.
“I have really never looked for a job,” Miller said. “I never had a formal college education, which won’t work now. In those days, you could find work.”
David Flowers, 29, moved to the Yellow Springs area after studying engineering at Cedarville University and initially tried his hand at contracting. But when the prospect of investing in the equipment needed to start a construction business would have left him in debt for 20 years and doing work he found somewhat wasteful, he instead decided to start an ecologically-friendly business manufacturing custom wooden eyeglass frames.
Featherwood Frames, a two-person company based on Yellow Springs-Fairfield Road, is now 80 percent pedal-powered, uses salvaged wood and non-toxic finishes and has its products sold in retail outlets in Manhattan, Minneapolis and other cities across the country. While the business is a success by his standards, he couldn’t make enough from it to afford a house in Yellow Springs, so he’s matched his lifestyle to the limited returns of the venture.
“I’ve realized for me to pursue my goals, I’d have to live within my means,” Flowers said. “The biggest thing is trying to have a balanced life. I don’t want to be a workaholic. I want to have good friendships and be a member of the community.”
How are Yellow Springers adjusting to the economic realities of today? The “golden age” of the Yellow Springs economy of the 1950s and 1960s, when a non-college educated resident could get a good-paying job or a stable manufacturing job at a growing local firm, are over, a reality that also reflects the stagnant national economy.
In its continuing economy series the News has reported that with fewer local jobs, residents have been commuting out of town more often and driving farther distances to work over the last decade. In addition, U.S. Census figures show that local residents are also increasingly staying home to make their living, and at rates that exceed state and national averages. Many are working in home-based businesses or are self-employed in their own small ventures around town, and these businesses sometimes strive to be socially and environmentally responsible. Other residents are barely getting by with the limited local work available and have had to downsize their consumption to keep living here.
What does the new local economy look like? How does that bode for the village’s future? How have these trends specifically affected younger villagers?
More local jobs trends
There are some seeming bright spots in local jobs trends. For one, though there are fewer overall jobs in the village than 10 years ago, there are more higher paying jobs, which is likely why total annual payroll from local companies remained flat over the period, even while 400 jobs were lost. The share of higher-paying jobs, those paying more than $40,000 per year, rose from about one quarter of the total number of jobs in 2002 to more than 40 percent in 2011. The village added more than 100 jobs paying more than $40,000 per year over that period, while it shed more than 500 paying less than $40,000 per year.
Another positive development is that both local jobs and the number of villagers working has been growing again in recent years after hitting lows in 2009–10 during the national recession, a trend that is reflected in the rebounding income tax payments collected by the village. And in the Dayton region, the decades-long hemorrhage of manufacturing jobs appears to have stopped and some leaders see growth for the “re-shoring” of jobs, according to economic development leaders.
While the village has not been immune to national economic trends, some trends are more pronounced here. For example, the loss of 400 jobs from 2002 to 2011 — 20 percent of all jobs — was higher than average losses in the area, with manufacturing work taking the biggest hit locally. Lower-paying jobs and jobs employing young and middle-aged people declined even faster than total job loss in the last decade.
With fewer low-paying jobs and more high-paying jobs, more villagers living in poverty and a growing median household income, income inequality seems to be increasing here, as in the rest of the country. What are people doing to make ends meet in the face of these trends?
Younger workers respond
One consequence of fewer lower-paying jobs could be that young people just starting out in the workforce — like Woodruff — have a hard time getting their foot in the door and others, seeing no job opportunities, are going on to create their own businesses. Census data shows that the age of local employees is increasing. Jobs for workers between between 29 and 54 took the biggest hit over the decade, and losses occurred for those under 29 as well, while the number of workers over 55 increased. Some of that is no doubt due to an aging workforce, but the loss of lower-paying jobs here no doubt plays a role as well.
For Woodruff, it was natural to go into the accommodation and food services field since the village is increasingly becoming a tourist destination. That sector was one that showed some growth between 2002 and 2011, gaining 13 jobs.
Other sectors that showed the largest growth over the decade were information (24 jobs) and construction (16 jobs). Andrew Kline, who started his own construction firm, Green Generation Building, four years ago, has witnessed growth for his company and sees room for more expansion for other contractors and subcontractors in town.
According to Kline, the many high quality contractors the village boasts have no shortage of work, and Kline himself is barely keeping up with the demand for his green building services, he said. He hopes to complete two to three homes this year, two of which are in or around Yellow Springs.
“In the entire time I’ve been working in Yellow Springs I haven’t found a want of work, I’ve always had what I needed,” Kline said. “And I don’t need more than I need.”
For Kline, the goal of his small company, which he owns with his wife, Anisa, is to provide enough money so they can live in town. In fact, the venture grew out of the desire to build a sustainable home for his family, which now also includes seven-month-old Layli. He hopes to grow his company slowly, but to maintain a healthy life-work balance, like Flowers with his eyeglass company. Flowers and his fiancée, Ash Dasuqi, are expecting their own child in July.
“We are not trying to make millions, we are not interested in pursuing that kind of lifestyle,” Kline said. “Anisa and I value spending time with each other and children.”
A new generation of villagers seems to be eschewing solely profit-driven motives in favor of a more ecologically-friendly and personally fulfilling path. For Flowers, the hardest part about owning his own business isn’t the taxes or marketing, but “trying to make it as ethically sound as possible.” At his workshop, drills, sanders and saws are rigged to a stationary bicycle to provide carbon-free power. While he saw many of his engineer friends go on to make big bucks designing HVAC systems for factories and other large-scale industrial projects, he chose to spend more time living in community.
“I know so many people who have more money than they know what to do with because of engineering but who are lonely,” Flowers said, adding that he is lucky to have both engineering skills and the opportunity to live in a community where people know him. “I’m not living in suburbia,” he said.
Flowers’ two-person operation (a joint venture with Brett Nagafuchi) won’t begin to chip away at the nearly 300 manufacturing jobs lost here in the last decade, and it isn’t likely to earn enough income for them to buy a home in the village, but it will provide a small living for the two of them.
Similarly, Woodruff’s low-paying work in food service doesn’t allow her to both pay off school debts and afford her own apartment in Yellow Springs. But she can play music in local bands and know that a local safety net is there in case she needs a place to crash in dire times.
“Yellow Springs is a great healing place to live and there’s a goodness in the safety net for me here,” Woodruff said.
Starting businesses, at home
But it’s not just young people who are starting their own companies here, and it’s not just recently that this trend started.
According to the U.S. Census American Community Survey 2008–12, almost 10 percent of working village residents work from home (152 people), a rate that is twice the national average and almost three times the Ohio average. That figure doubled over the last decade here. And though some of that increase could be attributed to more telecommuting in the internet age, some 12.3 percent of working residents were self-employed in their own unincorporated businesses between 2008 and 2012, twice the national average.
A glance through the Yellow Springs Community Directory shows the variety of people who appear to be self-employed and largely working from home: artists, cleaning services, lawyers, accountants, counselors, dog trainers, piano teachers and tuners, electricians, graphic designers, massage therapists, hair stylists, violin repair, home organizers and more.
One new local home-based company is Bookplate Ink, run by Karen Gardner. Gardner sells personalized and non-personalized bookplates using designs from the former Antioch Bookplate Company along with new designs, from her home on the south end of town. Web-based sales account for the majority of what she does, so moving the company here in February from Orlando, Fla. won’t likely affect sales, but it will allow her a more community-oriented lifestyle.
“When I worked from home in Florida, you’re home alone all day. It was hard for me to meet people,” Gardner said. “I would go to a coffee shop and didn’t know anyone and I kept thinking about how I wish I could go to the Emporium.”
Gardner, who originally spun off the company here in the late 1990s from the Yellow Springs News, uses local accountants for her books, local servers and web design for her website and gets supplies at the local hardware store, among other places. The benefits to the local economy of such ventures are clear, as businesses use each other’s services and money.
Challenges of the job trends
But there is also a risk associated with small, home-based operations, which can also skirt local taxes when income goes unreported and employees are paid under the table, according to Yellow Springs Chamber of Commerce Director and Village Council President Karen Wintrow. And many of these small activities won’t add much in terms of Village income tax receipts, she said.
“The less regulated a business is, the less access that government has to them,” Wintrow said. “It’s easier to be under the radar.”
Alternative businesses, though they may be beneficial for individuals and are great for community-building, are not necessarily going to solve the stagnant tax revenues that the Village of Yellow Springs collects, Wintrow added. Instead, what is needed are new companies with prospects for significant growth, such as EnviroFlight, and perhaps firms that exist to supply such businesses, she said.
Though the economic model of the 20th century appears to be on its way out, there remains one local company that still has a variety of low-, middle- and high-paying jobs, and they also happen to be the village’s largest employer: YSI/Xylem. Jobs at the company range from customer service representatives, janitors, machinists and assemblers to the executive director of research and development, director of sales in North America and manufacturing engineering manager. There are also sales representatives, accountants, software engineers and test technicians.
It’s unlikely that a new YSI/Xylem will locate in Yellow Springs, but Wintrow sees growth for new small-scale manufacturers here. David Burrows, director of the Dayton Development Coalition, shares her optimism, as manufacturing jobs are projected to remain flat in the Dayton region, rather than continue to fall precipitously as they have been. There are 2,500 small manufacturers in the Dayton area and many are now growing due to “re-shoring” occurring as labor costs increase abroad. There is also growth in the aerospace and automotive industry in the region, Burrows said.
“We can’t ignore manufacturing jobs as we do need those jobs,” Burrows said. “We have a lot of educated people here, but we also have a lot of people making things — the region was built on making things and creativity.”
As recently as 2002, manufacturing and education were tied for the largest segment of the Yellow Springs economy by number of jobs. But manufacturing’s fall, to just 17 percent of total jobs, has meant that the share of education in the economy is now a full one-third. Whether Yellow Springs should embrace the changes, or try to turn the tide is a question now before the community.
A more personal economy
Of course, many local firms here grew from small start-ups and home-based operations to become significant employers here, so the trend of locals starting new small firms may portend well for the local economy. The spirit of entrepreneurship has long existed in Yellow Springs, and so has the interest in running more socially-conscious businesses. Personally, villagers may find more fulfillment in small-scale endeavors that fit their values, even if it doesn’t enhance the greater economy overall. But perhaps there is a way for the economy and villagers to benefit equally through such work.
Graphic designer Bob Bingenheimer, for example, founded Bing Design here in 1979 out of a home office. A longtime dream to own his own company and to live and work in the same community, Bingenheimer’s outfit grew to employ around a dozen people and to fill an entire house near the Antioch campus (Bingenheimer sold the company in 2000 and it is still operating there). Clients of the design/advertising firm included Fortune-500 companies like NCR and Lexus-Nexus.
But Bingenheimer ran his business ethically too, paying his employees’ healthcare and continuing education instead of pocketing the profit himself and not laying off employees when business ebbed and flowed. As a result, he never got rich like many of his design school classmates who worked at big east coast firms, he said. But it was a trade-off he doesn’t regret.
“The trade-off was I didn’t have to live in Chicago or New York and at that time I had four kids,” Bingenheimer said. “And I didn’t have the horrific commute — it took me a minute to get to work in the morning.”
Visit ysnews.com for more charts and graphs on local jobs trends and to read the rest of the articles in the series.