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Retraining, computer classes and counseling for laid-off workers critical to turnaround

Rollercoaster ride for employment in Clarke County

From December 2000 to the spring of 2002, Clarke County suffered an economic plunge that took it from a healthy economy with a strong manufacturing base to the closing of three plants, the loss of 1,800 manufacturing jobs and an unemployment rate of 19.3% — the highest in Mississippi.

By the fall of 2003, the unemployment rate had dropped to only 5.7%, slightly less than the state average.

This change was brought about by a partnership between the Mississippi Employment Security Commission (MESC) and a Jones County Junior College (JCJC) program of retraining, computer classes and counseling for the laid-off workers, using the funds from a $3,288,733 National Emergency Grant approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.

As the year 2000 started, Clarke County`s economy was driven by a strong base in electric engine equipment and textiles. More than half of the county`s work force of 5,110 was employed in manufacturing — some 2,600 people.

In December 2000, A&B component parts, which made equipment for General Motors, closed its Shubuta plant and 347 workers lost their jobs. Three months later, 474 employees were laid off from Quitman Knitting Mills.

More than 900 people, many of them second- and third-generation employees, were thrown out of work when Clarke County`s biggest employer, Burlington Industries, shut down in April 2002.

This critical unemployment situation was exacerbated in May, when Wells-Lamont closed. The sewing plant was located in neighboring Wayne County, but just across the county line and Clarke County residents worked there.

Nearly 80% of Clarke County`s manufacturing jobs have now disappeared, according to Ken Dupre, project manager for JCJC, with only 530 remaining. He cited a former manager at one of the mills who said that this may be the lowest number of manufacturing jobs in Clarke County since the 1868 opening of the Stonewall Cotton Mill.

The emergency grant was announced by U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering in August 2002. The Mississippi Development Authority, the grant`s administrator, gave the subcontract to provide retraining for the laid-off workers to JCJC. In addition to Clarke County, the subcontract included workers in Jones, Wayne, Jasper and Lauderdale counties, as well as Choctaw County in Alabama.

A Clarke County office had already been opened by the Twin District Workforce, the physical agent for the Workforce Investment Act and its one-stop employment services, which include the MESC.

“It seemed a natural progression, when the emergency grant came through, to transfer the site to JCJC,” according to Pat Skrmetti, One-Stop coordinator for the Twin District Area, which covers 19 counties in South and Central Mississippi.

Skrmetti said that Dick Younger of the MESC was already at the Clarke County site and that Younger stayed on and maintained one-stop services in the office — called the Workforce Investment Network — in partnership with JCJC`s Dupre.

“I’m here to get laid-off workers directed to the proper training and then, when they’ve been trained, to help them find employment,” Younger said.

“The retraining is free,” according to Skrmetti. “I tell them, ‘It`s your tax dollars coming back to work for you.’”

Skrmetti said that there`s a Twin District board of directors and that it`s mandated by law that the board be at least 51% private sector business people.

“They tell us what we’re going to do,” Skrmetti said. “They rule on what we do.”

He added that there were spending caps on various programs. The caps are discussed by committees and then voted on by the board.

“The first challenge we faced was finding the displaced workers,” according to JCJC`s Dupre.

Complications immediately arose because of privacy considerations. Also, because so much time had passed by the time the training center opened, phone numbers and addresses of many of the laid-off workers had changed.

Burlington Industries did not supply the names and addresses of employees who had lost their jobs. A&B Component Parts also refused to give the names initially but finally provided JCJC with the names of former workers.

The junior college was helped in locating the laid-off workers by the dedication of the Peer Support Workers, Dupre said. These were former employees of Quitman Knitting Mills and Burlington Industries.

JCJC was finally able to get the needed information on 1,809 laid-off workers. By the fall of 2003, some 746 former workers were employed again and many had been able to find work because the junior college had provided — and was still providing — services in the areas of certified nurse aid training, computer classes, adult education classes, entrepreneurship training, job skills workshops, career counseling and comprehensive welding classes.

The whole purpose of the Workforce Investment Act is to bring all agencies under one umbrella and to get funding coordinated, according to Skrmetti. And this coordination and cooperation among agencies is to see that people get jobs.

“And our goal is not only to help employees find jobs again, but long-term jobs at a decent wage rate,” Skrmetti said.

The one-stop facilities include junior colleges, vocational rehabilitation, job corps, WIA and MESC. Within the Twin District area, one-stop centers are in Hattiesburg, Laurel and Meridian.

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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