Congressman Phil Roe talks tariffs, regionalism & workforce decline with local manufacturers


U.S. Rep. Phil Roe met with local manufacturers Thursday to discuss problems impacting production.

Roe addressed President Donald Trump’s recent decision to suspend tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada and Mexico.

“Obviously it was really good news about the aluminum and steel tariffs because that affects many businesses around here,” said Roe.

Yet tensions with China continue to escalate after recent negotiations fell through. The Trump Administration is expected to impose tariffs on an additional $300 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Joshua King of Kintronic Laboratories in Bluff City told Rep. Roe that tariffs targeting the Chinese have impacted their operations.

Asked to comment on failed negotiations with the Chinese, Roe said, “Basically the Chinese did what the Chinese do. They agreed to an agreement. I think they went back and evaluated it and thought ‘we don’t have all the advantages we used to have’ and that’s why they stepped away from it. I think the president is right keeping the heat on them.”

John Stewart, representing Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, said his main concern is maintaining a highly-skilled workforce in the region.

Congressman Roe said he’s heard from many business leaders who’ve had trouble filling positions because they can’t find employees who can pass a drug test.

“Our opioid epidemics is a hindrance to us here. I’m concerned about that and that’s something that I am working on,” said Roe.

Another challenge for manufacturers is the region’s declining workforce population, according to Roe.

“It’s basically now rural America versus urban America. You’re having our young people moving to the Atlanta’s and the Nashville’s and the Charlottes for jobs and it’s creating a real problem for us,” Roe said. 

Roe is among the many leaders supporting a regional approach to marketing to help the Tri-Cities bring in new business and employees, even though the idea has faced significant push back from locals.

“I think it’s important for our area and it’s hard for us because we’re all very proud of where we live,” Roe said.

As local leaders work to re-brand the region, Roe said he has a role to play in Washington, supporting infrastructure improvements that will make rural America more attractive for business recruitment.

“Right now the new highway is cable, high-speed cable, you can’t operate now and run a business unless you have high-speed cable,” said Roe.

Roe said lawmakers are currently discussing a bill to boost federal spending on infrastructure in rural areas.

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