Way down south in central Georgia, there’s an unlikely business success story unfolding that points the way toward revitalizing our nation’s economy.
Entrepreneur Jae Lee went into the export business last year, undeterred by naysayers and negativism. His initial aim was to send timber to China for manufacturers there to make chopsticks.
It seems there’s a shortage of the right kind of wood in China for chopsticks, and Lee, a U.S. citizen who was born in South Korea, discovered that south Georgia is overrun with poplar and sweet gum trees, which produce a type of wood that’s Goldilocks-perfect (neither too hard, nor too soft) for mass producing the handy and disposable utensils used everywhere to devour Chinese food.
But Lee decided to go into business making chopsticks right where the source materials were plentiful instead of trying to ship raw logs overseas. He opened a shop, made a few samples, and struck gold when a Korean buyer liked the product and demanded more.
“I knew there was a need,” Lee told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I thought I could make a profit.”
Well, he’s off to a good start. Linda Hawkins, the plant’s general manager, told me during a phone conversation that the business took off faster than Lee anticipated. His months-old business has 25 employees and already expanded twice. It produces 2 million chopsticks a day for supermarkets and restaurants in China, Japan, Korea, and the United States.
“When we’re fully staffed, possibly within a year, we’ll hire about 150 people,” Hawkins said, noting that postings for jobs at the plant have already drawn 450 applications in a community where the unemployment rate is exceptionally high at 12 percent.
The promising tale of Lee’s Georgia Chopsticks, LLC, is an oasis in a desert. It’s a contrast to the usual diet of doom and gloom stories about U.S. manufacturing. Most conversations about jobs morph into lamentations about the lack of them and not a celebration of the creation of more.
The latest load of awful news arrived late last week as the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 54,000 jobs were created during May, a figure substantially lower than the new 125,000 jobs economists say is needed every month to keep up with population growth. The bureau coupled that poor jobs growth figure with an announcement of an increase in the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent from 9 percent in April.
Those bits of sour government data were a downer, especially in the halls at the White House. The bleak jobs figures raised concerns among media pundits who suggest that administration critics will use the sputtering economy as the strongest argument against a second Obama administration.
Little wonder, then, that the president is traversing the nation to convince an unsettled and out-of-work public that he’s working hard to produce jobs. Last week, President Obama visited a Chrysler plant in Toledo, OH, where he cautioned the economy still faces “bumps on the road to recovery.”
This week, the president travels to Alexandria, VA, for another speech on the economy. White House officials said the planned address at Northern Virginia Community College is designed to “highlight the importance of training and preparing our workforce to complete for manufacturing jobs across the nation.” And next week he goes to North Carolina to discuss innovation as a way to spur job creation.
But the fact of the matter is that there’s precious little that the president or the federal government can do to hire Americans. That’s a job best suited to the private sector, which to date is showing limited enthusiasm for bringing on new workers at a clip to resuscitate a sickly economy. As my colleague Heather Boushey, a Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress, wrote recently for BNET.com, “employment will grow as a result of businesses ramping up investment, which will drive up economic growth, and, eventually, hiring.”
That’s precisely what Jae Lee is doing at his chopstick export business. Maybe the Obama roadshow should also pay a visit to south Georgia. What Lee has pulled off in the midst of all this terrible economic news stands apart as an example of how fearless and savvy business owners can create jobs, hire workers, and help rescue the nation’s economy.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.