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Margaret Taylor Collins does much more than operate a temp or temporary-to-hire staffing franchise in a rural part of Central Virginia. She serves as an economic development ambassador for Farmville and the rest of her sprawling service area. It’s a logical extension of the job for Collins, who has operated the Farmville AtWork franchise since 1997 and has never stopped drumming up jobs – and employers.

Some initially urged her to focus her staffing skills on larger cities in the state, such as Richmond, Charlottesville or Lynchburg.

“I chose quality of life, I wanted to be in the country; I wanted to raise my son in a small town, and that was my choice. Was my choice a challenge? Absolutely. That meant I had to cover a larger area to get these jobs.
“We need economic development badly, in every rural area,” she says. But despite the challenges, she takes great pride when she connects locals with job opportunities, be they temporary or temp-to-hire. “You can change their lives.”

As part of AtWork Group’s 25th anniversary observance, our blog features occasional interviews with franchisees of our staffing group. Here is our chat with Margaret Collins:

Question: What were major staffing demands when you took over the Farmville AtWork franchise?
Answer: “There were a lot of people needing jobs, a lot of people coming in filling out applications. I was trying to be involved in any kind of economic development I could; telling businesses this would be a wonderful community to start a business, own a business, continue a business, expand a business. I pushed for that.”

Q: So not only were you the owner of a staffing franchise, you were an advocate for economic development overall?
A: “Absolutely. I love the chambers of commerce in every area that we service. I’m in a very rural area, we have a lot of space, but not a lot of the population you have in cities. I had to cover a lot of ground to get those businesses; the chamber of commerce was one of the most amazing platforms to get out there and talk about AtWork. People needed jobs. Working with chambers of commerce, that was one of the biggest ways I was able to meet new businesses and do networking, as well as other organizations in the community, whether it be adult literacy groups or others. There are all kinds of ways to volunteer in the community. Those were some of the ways I was able to reach not only employees, but employers.”

Q: What type of jobs did you initially start filling?
A: “Industry, manufacturing, and construction is something we’ve always done. Basically, I don’t turn down a lot of work (with some exceptions).
“I grew up in a family of loggers and woodcutters; that was not an industry we covered because these things are all at risk of high workers comp.”

Q: What kind of services do you provide today?
A: “The same services we’ve done in the past; we also help people with resume writing, other things that’ll help them get the job. We do have a lot of temporary people who are working, but really, they are real people in real jobs taking care of real families.”

Q: You provide these services for free?
A: “Yes, we do. My biggest heartbreak is seeing a man come in, who has a family, but can’t find a job, to see him walk out the door; to see a single mom who wants to work, wants to take care of her children. It’s heartbreaking. How can I make somebody who doesn’t have a job pay to find a job?”

Q: What are some of the challenges you face working in such a rural area?
A: “We have to cover a larger area; And education, education, education. It’s K-12 as much as it is community colleges and trade schools. Education plays a big part; that’s a challenge.”

Q: Are there enough companies in that large swath of rural Virginia to which you can provide a steady staffing stream?
A: “Yes, because we spend a lot of time beating the bushes, whatever you want to call it, letting businesses know (about our staffing services), because in a rural area, a temporary services agency is not really what businesses are used to using. So that was a whole education process for businesses … we serve as a personnel department to find those people who are going to be best suited for what they are trying to accomplish.”

Q: We hear a lot about the rural/urban divide in the U.S. Is there less economic opportunity in rural areas?
A: “As businesses grow, they want to move somewhere there’s an opportunity to buy land, or where there are employees. In the country, you have to travel farther, childcare is an issue. There are issues with people having no drivers license – that’s across the nation, not just in rural areas, but it does affect people in a rural area more, because they have to travel sometimes farther to get to work, vs. being able to hop on a bus system. These are the big challenges for rural areas.”

Q: Have you seen an increase in businesses relocating to those areas?
A: Sure, each year we have more businesses, but what happened was, after the economy went down, so many businesses left or closed. Have we replaced all those jobs? I don’t think so. Are we always making an effort to do that? Yes, and I hope every single person in our community would make those efforts. You don’t have to own a business to make an effort to do economic development. What you do when you’re out having dinner, you talk about the place you love and live. You never know who’s listening.”

Q: What would you list as challenges moving forward?
A: Now unemployment is going down; there are fewer people coming in on a daily basis filling out applications. It’s not as many as it was, so that pool has shrunk some. The biggest challenge is getting more businesses here. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen, there are fewer people in the pool to choose from.”

Q: What skills should people possess?
A: “Go to trade or tech schools. We are facing challenges with infrastructure. Who is going to rebuild it? We’ve got to have the people trained and qualified to do that. I think that the opportunities for welders, for example, is amazing. We’re not talking about people earning minimum wage. We are talking about people who can make very good money and live the American dream by working in a trade. There’s a lot of opportunity for electricians, plumbers, welders, carpenters, all sorts of trade work. I think there’s a whole lot of opportunity there.”

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