Vol. IV, No. 1, Summer 1990

The Environment of Work

By Robert Gilmore

I've always been more annoyed than amused by the hillbilly-postcard image of the Ozarker. You know the postcard I mean. The one tourists buy to send back to Iowa, demonstrating the stereotypical lazy mountaineer, lying in front of his falling-down shack, surrounded by a passel of grimy and lethargic young'ns. A slovenly wife slouches nearby, herself too slothful to shoo the scrawny hogs, dogs, and chickens from the rickety porch.

The Ozarks, of course, has a reputation as a laid-back place, pleasant and restful, and I suppose the hillbilly-postcard Ozarker is just a clever way of demonstrating how enjoyable and relax-lng is the life of a typical resident. The truth is, anyone who has ever tried to grow anything in the thin rocky soil of an Ozarks hillside (where our postcard-hillbilly apparently lives) knows that it's not easy. To grow enough corn to make the likker in the XXX jug by his side, our post-card-hillbilly would have to work, and work hard. Now what would that do to our image?

In reality, work in the Ozarks is not an unknown commodity. Several generations of us have grown up with the words of the old hymn serving not just as a religious metaphor but as a prescription for everyday living as well:

Work for the night is coming
Work through the morning hours
Work while the dew is sparkling
Work mid springing flowers
Work when the day grows brighter
Work in the glowing sun
Work for the night is coming
When man's work is done

Had we known Dorothy Sayers insightful definition, "Work is not primarily a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do," we would, of course, have agreed. Work is good, we learned, not just as a necessary way to earn a living, but because we become better people by the very act of working. Hard work, diligence, and industry are ideal characteristics. "She's a fierce worker? is high praise, denoting a person who applies a significant level of energy to whatever task she puts her hand to. Loyalty to one's employer is taken for granted, as is the philosophy of fair effort for fair wages. This "work ethic" would seem to be at odds with the hillbilly stereotype. Which is more descriptive of the Ozarks today?

Diversity of work

The nature of work in the Ozarks is difficult to characterize, except by the term "diverse." There is still farming, of course, although comparatively few families now make their living from the land. Instead, Ozarkers today work in a wide range of occupations: manufacturing; retail and wholesale trade; service industries (especially tourism and medical); construction; finance, insurance, and real estate; government services; transportation, communications, and utilities; even mining, to mention but a few. The result of this eclectic mix of employment opportunities is an economy that tends to be cushioned from dramatic swings when one business or another falls on hard times.


But this very diversity makes it hard to generalize about work in the Ozarks as a whole. What about opportunities for work, for example? Unemployment figures give a generalized insight into this topic. A population center such as Springfield influences most of Greene and Christian Counties and constitutes a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA. The area unemployment rate in the Springfield MSA dropped to 3.5 percent in April of this year, the lowest rate of unemployment in the MSA since July of 1979. But before we draw conclusions about near-full employment in the greater Ozarks, we must look at other Ozarks counties, Dallas, Carter, Iron, and Washington, for example, which had double-digit unemployment in that same month. And one skeptical observer spoke of the time in his county when Iow unemployment figures were encouraging some people to begin speaking of an upturn in the local economy. "Actually," he said, "it was simply that the unemployed had moved away."

The employment picture is further complicated by drastic seasonal swings, especially in tourist areas. For instance, between March and April, 1990, unemployment in Stone County (Table Rock Lake country) dropped sharply, from 16.1 to 8.4 percent. It will continue to go down through July and August, but following Labor Day, the traditional end of summer tourist travel, many seasonal workers will be out of a job and the number of unemployed will again rise.

Will an expanded tourist season, extending into November and December, help provide more jobs? Yes, I was told by observers, but they noted also that a number of seasonal workers are not particularly interested in working more. They prefer to use the off-season for their own pursuits--drawing unemployment benefits, they may find ways to bring in some additional income, but mainly they will use the time to enjoy the place where they live.

The Ozarks Worker

"The work environment is constantly changing,'' says Jim Shirato, President of Manpower Temporary Services which has some 17,000 workers placed in four states, including the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks. Shirato came to the Ozarks from Dallas in 1976 because he saw here several conditions which were advantageous to his business: A diverse economy, natural resources, a favorable tax base, and absence of labor problems were among the attractions. "Ozarks businesses have an uncanny ability to adapt to changing market conditions," Shirato states, noting that even old-time Ozarks companies change product lines to become more competitive, and adopt the latest technologies to become more efficient. Ultimately though, says Shirato, it is the worker who makes these changes possible. Why? "A work ethic," according to Shirato, "A desire to do a good job. Pride. That makes change easy."

At the Missouri Division of Employment Security in Springfield, Paul Hitt and Bob McMinn add other characteristics to Shirato's litany. "Loyalty," says McMinn. "We have out-of-town employers coming in saying that it is 'well known' that Ozarks workers are loyal to the people they work for." Hitt says job satisfaction is an important element. "People enjoy what they are doing. And the Ozarks is such a good family place. There are so many diverse opportunities for family activities. This just has to help a worker be satisfied in his job."Neal Moore, former editor of the Springfield Union Labor Record and labor historian, thinks that the relationship between management and labor is generally good in the Ozarks because it is more personalized than in many large corporate structures. This personal relationship, in turn, builds worker loyalty. Ozarkers have a sense of their own worth and take pride in their work, Moore says. "They don't goof off but expect to be fairly paid for their labors."

As an historian, Moore thinks that the rural experience has done a lot to develop in the Ozarks worker a sense of his own worth and a feeling of self awareness--qualities that are now prized and defined as features of a desirable work ethic. "Instead of the traditional class division among land, labor, and capital," Moore explains, "an Ozarker with 40 acres is involved with and comes to appreciate all three. He certainly tends to give considerable importance to the labor part."

A number of people pointed out to me the significant presence in the Ozarks of what one called, "A largely untapped supply of skilled labor." The Ozarks is becoming ever more attractive to people retiring from the active work force, many of whom are younger than the traditional retirement age of 65. Many of these retirees are physically and mentally active and welcome the opportunity for part time employment. Increasingly their talents are being used in consulting, technical, and professional capacities by Ozarks businesses who may be seeking to become more competitive, or who may simply need some temporary skilled help. These retired folk may be drafted to help out in the tourism industry during the "season," having some fun, making a little extra money, and entertaining visitors who, like many of the retirees themselves earlier, are discovering qualities of the Ozarks that make it a good place to visit. And a good place to live.



I asked a young executive, newly arrived at his job in a small Ozarks town, what he found to be the biggest difference from his previous position in a neighboring state. He thought but a moment before responding, "It's a lot more fun to go to work here? David Lages of SMSU says that there is a vast labor pool in the Ozarks because of its environmental attractions. Lages is an economist, so he can use terms like "labor pool," while the rest of us might be observing that there seems to be a lot of people still living here when they might go somewhere else where jobs are more plentiful, where there are more advancement opportunities for the upwardly mobile, or where salaries are better. But people, for a variety of reasons, do seem to like living in the Ozarks.

Patti and Wes Tastad are such people. They were looking around for a way to get out of corporate life in Chicago when they saw an ad for a canoe rental business in Shannon County, Missouri. Neither had been to the Ozarks, but they loved canoeing--many of their vacations were spent paddling on Wisconsin rivers. They visited the Ozarks and were amazed, Patti recalled, that people could actually make a living renting canoes, a business that to them seemed like a vacation. "Besides, the Ozarks is beautiful? They are now in their third year of operating the Eminence Canoe Rental, Cottages, and Campgrounds at Eminence, Shannon County, a business which has grown 40 percent in their three years of ownership.

A quality lifestyle takes on diverse forms for different people. For the Tastads it was the satisfaction of owning their own business, applying their entreprenurial skills, and working incredibly hard. For others, an attractive Ozarks lifestyle might mean the opportunity to hunt and fish often. Smart employers know this and simply plan for a number of their employees to be gone during deer season. Professional people are not immune. I was in the office of an elderly attorney in a small town some years back when he received a phone call. He was quite testy with the caller. "Monday? Of course I can't see you on Monday. You know turkey season opens on Monday. I'll see you Wednesday." He hung up and we resumed our conversation, but his mind was really on next Monday.

Lifestyle for some means the chance to have a large garden which will provide fresh vegetables for the table, or the option to live in a small town and become an active part of that community. Some would rather not work for someone else but prefer to be self-employed--to cut wood;

work at their computer; create trinkets to sell to tourists and crafts shops; paint signs, or do any number of things that will bring in a little money and still leave a maximum of personal, quality time. Perhaps the modern concept of "flextime" in industry and business was invented in the Ozarks.

Quitting Time

It would be nice to paint a totally rosy picture about working in the Ozarks, but, like most real life situations, there are trade-offs. People from other parts of the country who call the Missouri Division of Employment Security are often gratified, according to Paul Hitt, when they learn about the low cost of living in the Ozarks. The modest cost of housing, in particular, whether renting or buying, is usually a pleasant surprise. When these same folk, however, are informed about the level of wages, their enthusiasm dims somewhat. And economists tell me that the lower wages are not offset by the low cost of living--per capita income is still relatively lower than the cost of living. In other words, it might not cost you as much to live here as somewhere else, but the amount of money you earn will be comparatively less.

Many people are concerned that the young people of their communities will have to leave because of a lack of employment of any kind. But even if jobs are available, most will not require high levels of skill or of education. This may mean few opportunities for upwardly mobile young professionals. According to SMSU economics professor Dr. Brad Hoppes, the largest out-migration group are those aged 25-35. "They may come back to the Ozarks later," says Hoppes, "but opportunities for advancement are often better elsewhere."

Still, people come to, and stay in, the Ozarks to live, to play, and to work. The Ozarks is both an environment for its workers and an environment created by its workers, although these two become intertwined and it is difficult to separate them.

The result, perhaps, is simply an environment for getting things done.


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