KANNAPOLIS — When Randy Keller looks out the window of his office at the North Carolina Research Campus, he can see 10 years into the past.
As a 24-year employee of Cannon Mills and then Pillowtex, Keller remembers well what the Kannapolis property used to look like when it housed a textile mill.
But Keller, 51, who now manages the research campus facilities of N.C. State University, also sees the future in the new buildings around him. Eight universities and several biotechnology companies now have a presence there.
He said he would like the research campus to grow more quickly, but he chalks up the slow growth to the economy.
“A lot of the community’s still bitter over the mill shutting down,” Keller said. “But that’s changing times. I’ve learned that you’ve got to change. If you stay in one spot, you’re going to sit there and regret not moving on. ... You’ve got to expand your knowledge, move on and meet new people.”
Keller first went to work at Cannon Mills, which later became Pillowtex, in 1979. Keller first worked in the garage, maintaining the tractor-trailer fleet and forklifts. In 1996, he moved to the Fluor Daniels machine shop as a welder.
“We didn’t just work at one plant,” Keller said. “We traveled to all the plants Pillowtex owned.”
Keller had been out on vacation when the Pillowtex closure was announced in July 2003.
“I was actually out getting my truck inspected, and the guy who inspected my truck told me I didn’t have a job anymore,” he said.
Keller said losing his job didn’t come as a total surprise to him. He had recently noticed that money was getting tighter at work, so he and his wife had started saving as much money as they could — just in case.
That savings helped Keller attend Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to study motorsports management.
“It’s a good program,” he said. “It helped me a lot, and it carried over to what I’m doing now.”
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Nearby, housed in the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College research campus building, the R3 (“R-cubed”) Center works to help people like Keller every day.
Unemployed local residents can meet with a career coach, attend free workshops, get job skills training and connect with employers looking to hire.
It’s actually the closure of the Pillowtex plant in Kannapolis that made the R3 center possible.
About 3,900 workers in Rowan and Cabarrus were displaced, said Jeannie Moore, vice president of advancement and corporate education at the college.
Rowan-Cabarrus enrolled about 52 percent of them in retraining programs.
Moore, who has been working with the college since 1977, said the local area had already started changing by 2003. The regional textile industry was in decline, she said, and other mills had shut down already.
But the closure of Pillowtex impacted more people — more workers and their families — than ever before.
“We were the largest dislocation in the history of the Southeastern United States... there may be others since then that were larger than that,” Moore said. “Although I knew the community college did important and valuable work, I didn’t realize until it happened here at that magnitude the level of responsibility we had.”
Moore, a lifelong native of Rowan County, said many of those who lost their jobs at Pillowtex were her former neighbors and classmates, parents of her son’s friends and even students she once taught in public school.
“They depended on the industry for a long period of time, and it suddenly went away,” Moore said. “It was a little overwhelming. At that point, I realized exactly how powerful education is in terms of helping people to rediscover themselves, make progress and move on to that next opportunity out there.”
She said many of the unemployed workers were people in their 60s and 70s who were trying to build a bridge to retirement and social security.
The community college became a resource center for the dislocated workers needing assistance. It set up a presence at the mill site in partnership with the N.C. Employment Security Commission — now the N.C. Division of Workforce Solutions — to help them find new jobs.
Nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations, churches and the local Departments of Social Services offered resources and guidance to the workers. Other area community colleges also sent representatives to help.
Moore said Congressman Robin Hayes even mobilized a group of officials out of Washington, D.C., to help the unemployed workers.
“One of the lessons we learned is folks didn’t want to go far for services,” Moore said. “And if they went, it could be intimidating to go to a college campus.”
That’s when the idea for the R3 Center was born.
The college received funding to build the center when the research campus began development. Moore said it opened its doors in 2007 and has served more than 10,000 folks since then.
Carolyn Helms, special assistant in corporate and continuing education at the R3 Center, is a former Pillowtex employee, but she lost her job there about six months before it closed. She was already attending the community college when she started working there to give administrative support during retraining efforts.
“It has been phenomenal what the college was able to do,” Helms said, “not only for Pillowtex people, but for those laid off at Food Lion, Phillip-Morris, the motorsports industry and the healthcare industry.”
Many of those workers have been retrained through the college in different skilled trades, information technology, phlebotomy and nurse aide programs. The R3 center continues to offer free monthly workshops to those who are out of work, tailoring its programs to the changing needs of the community.
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By the time Keller completed his two-year associate’s degree program at Rowan-Cabarrus, his unemployment benefits had run out. As he continued to search for a new full-time position, he made some money working odd jobs with the skills he had used at Pillowtex.
In 2007, he finally found a job at a local wheel and tire store. It was only open 18 months before the toppling economy brought it down.
About a month or two later, Keller’s fortune changed, and he received two job offers at the same time. One was from N.C. State University, and the other was from the Craftsman truck team.
Keller said he has always had an interest in motorsports, and with his new degree, he was ready to finally work in the field.
But after the last few years of uncertainty, Keller knew that a truck team that depended on sponsorship money wouldn’t give him the job security he needed.
Keller chose to come to work at the research campus in November 2008, and he said he’s glad he did.
“Learning things has always been a desire for me,” he said. “If I see something, I want to know how it works. If it doesn’t work, I want to know why. If it breaks, I want to know why it breaks.”
In his current job, Keller is in charge of facilities management and operations upkeep. Technically, Keller’s position is one of a supervisor, but he still prefers hands-on work.
“A lot of things, I’ll take upon doing myself instead of calling upon the maintenance guys,” he said. “I like it here. I’m hoping its my last job.”
For more information about the R3 center, visit www.rccc.edu/r3/.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.