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Good Works: The Virtues of Bible Belt Labor

By Mark Kelly

There is nothing better for a man...than that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor.
-Ecclesiastes 2:24

Abundant land and cheap labor. During the first half of this century and more, those five words were the mantra of economic development in the South. Lacking in infrastructure, lagging in education and beset by racial problems, the region--outside a number of successful home-grown companies--functioned largely in the manner of a Third World nation, a locale the sole utility of which was the fact that things could be made cheaply there. Thus was minted the image of the sun-broiled Southern sweatshop, where hordes of workers toiled in the manufacture of goods that their meager wages would never allow them to buy.

Of course, all that has changed now. During the past three decades, the South has established and steadily solidified a position as the business address of choice for new and expanding companies from across the nation and around the world. The region's perennially robust and thoroughly diversified economy paces the nation in annual job growth and capital improvement figures.

As the tide of American business growth continues to flow southward, it is interesting to take note of the factors cited as decisive in the calculations of the companies swelling the South's corporate ranks. Proximity to growing metropolitan markets; governments amenable to the needs of and interest of business; lower costs of living and doing business; lower rates of crime; a climate largely devoid of blizzards, droughts and earthquakes. Some combination of these factors is usually paramount in the deliberations of companies seeking to expand or relocate, and the South's generally high marks against such criteria go a long way toward explaining its present and future vitality.

With increasing frequency, however, it is the Southern work force that makes the strongest impression on site-shopping execs. And, while it's still true that labor costs less in the South than anywhere else in the country, the real attraction lies in the quality, productivity and work ethic prevalent across the region. Indeed, the devotion of Southern workers to their jobs lends deeper meaning to the term "value-added."

Unscheduled absences annually cost American business on average more than $600 per employee, according to the non-profit Commerce Clearing House. Beyond the loss from paying salaried employees for time not spent on the job, the negative financial impact of absenteeism comes from the costs of overtime to make up for absences, hiring temporary workers and rearranging work schedules to compensate for absent personnel.

The tendency to be voluntarily absent from the workplace, industrial psychologists say, is most directly influenced by both individual and collective work ethic. In other words, personal attributes and shared cultural attitudes are the primary determinants of chronic absenteeism. Unnecessary absences are largely the result of such related "perceptions" as job satisfaction and organizational commitment, and "resource factors" like marital status and number of children. That Southern states tend toward lower levels of absenteeism and turnover and higher rates of productivity, as well as larger families and lower divorce rates, would seem to bear out the desirability of the Southern work force.

All told, the South's growing labor represents an asset to business the magnitude of which is only now being fully recognized. So suggests Dr. Joe Freund, director of economic development and employer relations for the Georgia Department of Labor. The concept of value-added, says Freund, was long too narrowly defined to encompass the worth of the Southern worker.

"Historically," Freund says, "The South has not fared well in measurements of value-added simply because of the types of industry that were prevalent here. In those terms, cleaning chickens does not equate with assembling circuit boards, even though each job requires roughly the same amount of training time." That state of affairs has changed, he notes, as the South has continued the diversification of its economy, attracting increasing numbers of traditionally high value-added industries, especially those found in the automotive fields.

"On the other hand," Freund continues, "The South has always done well on a case-study basis, with large numbers of individual employers relating good experiences with their workers. With regard to marketing and promotion, that kind of testimonial can carry a great deal of weight with prospective new industry. Knowing that a loyal and dedicated work force is available at a highly competitive price is a powerful inducement to any company."

Freund's assertion is supported by comments from two executives whose respective companies have expanded to the South in recent years. In speaking candidly with this writer, each asked not to be identified, citing a desire to avoid offending employees of their companies in other areas of the country.

"We have manufacturing and distribution operations across the United States," offers one. "But nowhere do we enjoy better labor management relations than at our three locations in the Southeast. Our workers here really seem to appreciate their jobs, and that's reflected in productivity."

"We originally expanded to the South pretty much out of necessity, to get into a growing market," he continues. "Our subsequent expansions, however, have been strongly influenced by our experience with the work force."

The other executive, whose company relocated most of its operations from the New York area, is more blunt in assessing the Southern work force. "Quite frankly, we were tired of seeing our plants filled with disgruntled clock punchers. I don't mean to say that all of our employees were like that, but there is a definite difference in the prevailing attitude toward work here in the South. Southern workers show up when they're supposed to, and they're more inclined to give you an honest day's work for a fair day's pay."

The Role of Religion

What makes Southern workers better workers? An intriguing theory comes from Tom Wesley III, who heads the Wesley Company, an Atlanta-based commercial real estate and location consulting firm. "Southerners' have a positive attitude toward work, a feeling of responsibility toward their job, and are generally happier people. I firmly believe that has a lot to do with the religious orientation of the South, and I have no doubt that it's something a growing number of employers are excited about taking advantage of."

If statistics--and tangible cost savings--are any indication, there is much to be excited about. Not only does religious devotion impact greatly upon productivity, absenteeism and insurance claims, but it is also a fact that religious people are less likely to suffer such psychologically related problems as depression and burnout. To return briefly to the realm of industrial psychology: If an organization's "absence culture" may be defined as the set of shared beliefs held by its work force regarding the acceptability of being absent from work, then the influence upon that culture of a widely-shared doctrine of religious faith would seem a given.

"It's really a conscience issue," Wesley states. "The Judeo-Christian work ethic teaches people to respect authority, and to appreciate the value of work. That shows up here, particularly among front-line workers. It's been my experience that employers in the South find less focus among their employees on beating the system, and more of a sense of moral obligation. Not working hard for what you earn is morally equivalent to stealing from your employer."

One Man's Job is Another Man's Mission

The link between religion and work is not limited to front-line workers. Independent studies have shown that religious people on all socio-economic levels view work or business activity as a stewardship opportunity: their approach to the workplace is shaped as an extension of religious values, so that they view their jobs as a means of helping to supply the needs of the community--feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, so to speak.

Along the same line, a recent article in Across the Board--a publication geared to CEOs and other high-level executives--posited that evangelical Christians who have attained top management status as CEOs and board chairmen have tended to favor careers in service and value-oriented sectors. One reason, the writer suggested, may be that their strong religious ties predispose them toward activities that offer opportunities to create goods and services of value to others, as mandated by the teachings of the Bible.

That certainly seems true to former Lanier Corporation President Wes Cantrell. The company sells and services electronic office products from more than 1,600 locations in 80 countries, and Cantrell, self-described as a "committed Christian layman," credits much of its success to an emphasis on customer service and exceeding expectations--the Christian concept of "going the extra mile."

"I have always felt that there is a strong relationship to the concept of work among people who are deeply involved in their faith," says Cantrell, who chuckles when adding, "The Bible says those who don't work don't eat. I think there's something of that involved in developing a labor force that works hard and enjoys what they're doing."

"Hard work is undeniably a moral issue," Cantrell concludes. "Doing things right, finishing what you start, giving customers more than what they paid for: All of that comes right out of Judeo-Christian philosophy."

Columbus, MS

Old Dominion Electric Cooperative

 Opelika, AL

Fayetteville, NC

Guntersville, AL

Aiken, SC

South Carolina

Alabama Development Office

Martinsville-Henry County, VA 

Marion, AR

The Memphis Region

Entergy Louisiana

 New Braunfels, TX

North Carolina

Mid America Industrial Park

Tennessee Valley Authority

McAllen, TX

Tupelo, MS

Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

Northeast Tennessee Valley

Tunica County, MS

Winston-Salem, NC

Little Rock, AR

 Louisiana

Roanoke, VA

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