No more mills: Changing workforce means fewer options for dropouts

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 14, 2008

By Sarah Nagem
Fewer Rowan County residents have graduated high school than the statewide average.
And income levels reflect it.
Almost one in four local people did not finish school ó about 5 percent more than the statewide number, according to a recent report by Market Street Services, an Atlanta research firm.
The county’s per capita income in 2005 was about $27,000, the study says.
That was about $3,000 less than North Carolina’s per capita income that year and $7,000 less than the national number.
Now, school leaders face the daunting task of convincing young people that getting an education might be more important than ever.
Not so long ago, students could quit school and easily find work in a mill.
The mills are gone, but that kind of thinking didn’t evaporate for everyone when the smokestacks cleared.
“Parents have the mentality that there’s textile jobs here,” says Tim Smith, student services director for the Rowan-Salisbury School System. “But there’s not.”
The community hasn’t bought into a new way of thinking, says Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom.
“I think there is a lack of support for education,” she says.
Until not so long ago, the mills were a good option for lots of people, including the newly elected chairman of the Rowan County Commissioners.
Carl Ford started working at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis when he was 16.
It was 1973, and he worked weekends and holidays. During his senior year at A.L. Brown High School, Ford worked four hours a day after school.
He earned $2.10 an hour.
“Minimum wage was $1.80, so I thought I was making big money,” Ford says.
Unlike many others, Ford decided to stay in school instead of working full time at the mill. He graduated from A.L. Brown in 1975 and went on to take some classes at Rowan Tech ó which is now Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Before he could earn a degree there, Ford enrolled at the textile college.
But some mill employees started to get laid off, and Ford stopped taking classes.
When he left the mill in 1982, he says, he made about $7.25 an hour as a foreman.
“It was a good job,” he says.
Ford never earned a college degree.
The numbers suggest others from his generation followed a similar pattern. Fewer than 15 percent of Rowan residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Market Street study.
But Ford didn’t let the absence of a college diploma hold him back. He owns two radio stations now.
Despite his success, though, Ford would likely have a hard time finding work at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.
A changing economy
It’s been five years since Pillowtex closed, to be replaced by an industry that requires a different set of skills.
The research campus is bringing biotechnology jobs ó positions that call for training beyond a high school education.
The Market Street study shows that local folks don’t have enough education for the new jobs.
Recently, Rowan-Salisbury school leaders and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College officials met to discuss how they can better work together to push students toward college.
Students who earn a two-year degree will greatly increase their chances of getting hired at the research campus, college leaders say.
Without at least an associate’s degree, local students will likely be out of luck in Kannapolis.
The community college is already training people for jobs.
The R3 center ó which stands for Refocus, Retrain and Re-employ ó helps adults find work in the changing economy.
What else is there?
Of course, not everyone wants to work in the science industry.
There are some other options out there. But education levels come into play.
Freightliner ó which is the local job to get for many people ó requires its employees have a high school diploma to work at the Cleveland plant.
The company prefers its plant managers have a bachelor’s degree, according to a company representative.
Food Lion, another of the county’s biggest employers, requires less.
Someone without a high school diploma can start working as a cashier or other low-level position, says Jennifer Speck, a spokeswoman for the company, which is based in Salisbury.
Employees without a diploma can move up through the Food Lion ranks. They can participate in training programs to become managers, Speck said.
“There are advancement opportunities for people without a high school diploma,” she says.
Dropouts have a few other options, too, says Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education. They can work at restaurants or break into the construction business.
The N.C. Employment Security Commission predicts several jobs in the health-care industry that require little training will continue to be in demand.
And masonry programs in high schools ó the program has been hugely popular at South Rowan High ó teach kids valuable skills, Emerson says. But the burst of the housing bubble means a smaller need for builders.
Ambitious workers without high school diplomas can succeed as small-business owners, Emersons says.
When his nephew dropped out of school years ago, Emerson says he was disappointed.
His nephew was smart, 16 and not interested in high school athletics, he said.
“He was just a great kid who was bored stiff,” Emerson says.
He says his nephew eventually became licensed to work as an electrician.
So, the question might be, does everyone really need a high school diploma?
“Well ó no,” Emerson says.
But not having a diploma certainly narrows the options. Emerson’s nephew might be the exception, not the rule.
“I guess they can still run away with the carnival,” says Emerson, who is known for being outspoken at gatherings like school board meetings. “And there aren’t many shepherds or lighthouse keepers that are needed anymore.”