published Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Lifelong commitment: Staying at the same job a rarity these days

Bill Cox earned a law degree in 1979 then immediately began working in the local district attorney’s office, first
as an assistant district attorney and, since 1996, as the district attorney general.
Bill Cox earned a law degree in 1979 then immediately began working in the local district attorney’s office, first as an assistant district attorney and, since 1996, as the district attorney general.
Photo by Tim Barber.
  • photo
    Les Meek, owner of Meek’s Antique Auctions in Red Bank, has been in the business since 1965. He opened his first antique store/auction house on Dayton Boulevard in 1988.
    Photo by Staff File Photo.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Bebe Heiskell, the sole commissioner in Walker County, Ga., has been working in the same location as a public administrator for four decades.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

When Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox made the decision last year to not seek re-election in 2014, it wasn’t because he was tired of the job. He just thought it was time to hand over the position to a younger attorney.

Like many baby boomers, Cox, 66, has no intentions of putting himself out to pasture anytime soon.

“I don’t intend to retire,” he says, noting that he’s tossing around some options, one of which may be to teach a law class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “I taught a class there last semester and really enjoyed it, but I definitely won’t surrender my law license.”

Like Cox, there are folks who have been working the same job — sometimes in the same building — for decades. But that kind of loyalty, both from the employee and the employer, is now a rarity. Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at London Business School, wrote in the Financial Times newspaper that workplace loyalty is a dinosaur, “killed off through shortening contracts, outsourcing, automation and multiple careers.”

In generations past, including baby boomers, staying at one company was almost the norm. You got a good job working for the automotive industry or at an insurance company or some other longstanding business and there you stayed, getting regular raises and promotions and building up your pension, waiting for the day you could retire after about 25 years.

But these days, most American workers stay at a job for a little over five years, according to a study by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute.

“Career-long jobs never existed for most workers,” Craig Copeland, who wrote the report, said in a news release. “Historically, most workers have repeatedly changed jobs during their working careers, and all evidence suggests they will continue to do so in the future.”

So folks like Cox and Bebe Heiskell, the sole commissioner in Walker County, Ga., who has been working in the same location as a public administrator for four decades, look sort of like unicorns.

Heiskell says she has seen many fellow employees come and go during her service to Walker County. There’s only one person, county clerk/office manager/bookkeeper Bridget Garrett, who has worked with her throughout her career in public service.

“I hired her when she was 18 years old and she’s been with me since,” Heiskell says. “It’s like she grew up here.”

Like Cox, Heiskell, who was first elected to office in 2000 and was the first female sole commissioner in Georgia, says she has no plans to quit. In fact, she plans to run for office again in 2016.

“I love what I do,” says Heiskell, who at 74 is older than baby boomers, who were born betwen 1946 and 1964. Still, the energetic lady says she’s not ready to stop.

“I love helping people and I love making my community a better place to live. I’m proud of my work, and there’s a lot more I want to do,” says Heiskell, the widow of the late Tom Heiskell, and the mother of three — a deceased son and two daughters, one of whom lives with her. She has one grandchild and another on the way.

A survey released last fall reported that 78 percent of baby boomers said they had high job satisfaction, compared with 66 percent from Generation Y, who were born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s and are also known as Millenials. The survey was conducted by PayScale, a compensation data provider, and Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research company.

Les Meek, owner of Meek’s Antique Auctions in Red Bank, has been in the business since 1965. Now 66 years old, the outspoken and quick-witted native Welshman says he moved to America in 1969 because the antique market in the States was strong.

“I realized in the mid-’60s that most of the antiques were being sold to Americans,” says Meek. “I first went to New Orleans, then in 1972 moved to Huntsville, Ala., and finally, in 1973, to Chattanooga.”

Meek opened his first antique store/auction house on Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank in 1988, moving 25 years later to his current location further north on the roadway.

He became an antique auctioneer in 1990 and is now well-known in the region, holding at least one auction each month in his 10,000-square-foot warehouse. The events are typically standing-room only.

Though Meek is passionate about his job, he readily admits the physical labor of moving furniture and handling precious antiques is tiring.

“It’s hard work, hard work, and more hard work,” he says. “Nothing comes easy.”

Still, he’s reached the point where he might be willing to slow down just a bit.

“There’s no retirement in my future,” Meek says, “but I would like to slow down and enjoy my grandkids.”

Meek works with his wife of 46 years, Yvonne. They met in Wales when they were 14 years old and she has worked in the antique business with him since the beginning of his career. They are the parents of three daughters, two of whom work with their parents

Cox and his wife, Pat, have been married 46 years. They have a son and daughter (who followed in her father’s footsteps and is an attorney), and four grandchildren.

“We have a really good marriage,” says Cox, who earned a law degree in 1979 then immediately began working in the local district attorney’s office, first as an assistant district attorney, and, since 1996, the district attorney.

When he leaves office, he says, he will have more time to spend with his wife.

“There are things we want to do, like traveling, that we didn’t have time to do before.”

Law was his second career. After serving in the United States Army in Vietnam, Cox came back home and got a job as a police officer while earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. During his five years as a police officer, he was assigned to work as a liaison with the district attorney’s office.

“As a police officer , I would go into the courtroom from time to time to see what they were doing,” he says. That interest eventually led him to enroll at the Nashville School of Law. “I went to classes in Nashville two to three nights a week.”

After more than 30 years, the soft-spoken Cox acknowledges that some days are better than others.

“When you have the opportunity to go into a courtroom and put everything into making justice happen — it’s a very rewarding feeling,” he says.

Heiskell’s career in public administration began in 1972 when she started working for Walker County Commissioner Roy Parrish.

“I worked the next 24 years for him until he retired,” she says. “I worked close with him and, if there was a problem I could help solve, I took care of it. … I learned a lot during those years.”

When Parrish retired, a group of citizens asked Heiskell to run for his office.

“I knew the job and I knew that I could do it, but I lost in a runoff,” Heiskell says.

“I ran again in 2000 and won. It was like coming home to the same office I left four years earlier.”

She notes that Parrish at first discouraged her from running because he said a woman had never been elected in that position. He later changed his mind.

And she continues to work in the same building where she worked with Parrish.

“My office is shabby,” she says. “But it doesn’t bother me. I’d rather spend money on making my county better than making my office better. The sofa in the lobby, for example, has been there since 1986. It cost $300.”

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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