RCCC responds to demand for qualified workers for new textile jobs

SALISBURY — In her job at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, Jeanie Moore watched the demise of textile manufacturing and saw its aftermath — thousands of people out of work, struggling to keep their homes and put food on the table.

She and others in the community college system scrambled to help, retraining as many former textile workers as possible and preparing them for jobs in different industries that required new skills and more education. Not just textile jobs but manufacturing jobs of all kinds were leaving Rowan County and the United States.

Now, the tide has turned.

“This is certainly something that we hoped would happen,” said Moore, vice president for advancement in continuing education at RCCC. “Those of us who were involved with the Pillowtex layoffs and Philip Morris leaving and the typical nature of Freightliner’s business, we worried about not having jobs where people could earn sustainable wages.”

Led by Gildan Activewear and Tuscarora Yarns, textile manufacturing jobs have returned to Rowan County as part of a resurgence throughout the southern United States. Nearly 700 people in Rowan work in textile and apparel manufacturing today, with 300 additional jobs anticipated in the next two to three years.

“To see these companies come back and validate that manufacturing is alive and well is a wonderful turnaround,” Moore said. “It has taken considerable effort to make that happen.”

For 10 years, RCCC has been focused on retooling the workforce that came out of the old manufacturing world.

“Manufacturing is not dead, but it’s different,” Moore said.

The college prepares students for advanced manufacturing in textiles and other industries where jobs have been consolidated and require cross-functionality and more skills than in the past. Reading, math, problem solving, electronic communication, interpersonal skills and the ability to work with a team all are crucial skills in today’s textile manufacturing plant, Moore said.

With state funding, RCCC also offers nine customized training programs for specific employers.

The training program for Gildan is valued at up to $307,000 over a three-year period, depending on the training plan, the number of new hires and the company’s capital investment in two new plants in Rowan County. The money will pay for RCCC to partner with Gildan vendors such as Rieter to train new workers on high-tech machines installed at the former PGT plant and another Gildan facility under construction next door.

In addition to technical training on site at the plant, RCCC will train Gildan employees in safety, leadership and computer operations, according to Ann Morris, RCCC dean for corporate and continuing education. Gildan shares the cost, she said.

“For Gildan, we sat down with them and wrote specific training programs to meet their needs, even before they began to hire,” Morris said.

So far, 42 Gildan workers are enrolled as RCCC students for customized training.

Total budget allocations for RCCC’s nine current customized training projects is $1.24 million.

Morris said college officials are also in close contact with Tuscarora to help the company find workers for its expanding China Grove plant. Phil Absher, human resources director for Tuscarora, said he has nearly a dozen positions open because he cannot find qualified applicants.

As a response in part to the new demand for textile jobs, RCCC has launched a certified production technician course with a $120,000 state grant. The first class attracted six students, and Morris said she hopes enrollment will grow as people learn about new jobs in advanced manufacturing.

The state money provides scholarships for the course, and the certificate students earn will give them a leg up when applying for jobs, Morris said. They learn how to write a resume specific to manufacturing and practice interview skills with real employers.

RCCC also offers career-readiness certifications and workshops in resume writing and other skills at the R3 Career Services Center in Kannapolis. The center is an excellent resource for people with no experience in job interviews or filling out online applications, Moore said.

The college wants to ensure that “folks who are out there still on the fringes can get that leg up and enter the ranks,” she said. “And we want companies to have a workforce that makes them successful and helps them to thrive.”

Chuck Ward, Gildan’s senior vice president of yarn spinning, said RCCC has been a good partner. Modern textile manufacturing is less manual and more analytic and relies more heavily on electronics, Ward said.

Workers must be more self-sufficient than in the past, as plants have fewer supervisors, he said.

After RCCC establishes a relationship with a company through a customized training project, college officials hope the company will continue to rely on the school for future training, Morris said.

“We will respond in any way that is needed to meet those needs of the companies to develop training, and we can do it very quickly,” she said.

The college conducts on-site job training at about 100 locations annually.

Even though textile manufacturing jobs are returning to Rowan County, they are different from the jobs 20 years ago. A high school diploma or its equivalent is now essential, Moore said.

“No longer can you drop out of school in the 10th grade and be hired,” she said. “Those days are gone.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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