Can Springs' workers find new jobs?

LANCASTER -- Angie Hunter understands the stress, fear and uncertainty on the faces of the people pouring into her office these days.

The 39-year-old program assistant at the Lancaster County Workforce Development Center once stood in their shoes. A former Springs Global employee, Hunter's job now is helping individuals who are out of work -- including the 750 Springs textile manufacturing workers who lost their jobs last week -- land on their feet.

"Those people have no idea what they're gonna do," she said about the workers at Grace and Close plants who were told last week their jobs will move to South America in August. "I've been there; I know what it's like."

Those 750 employees join more than 2,300 others who've been laid off locally by the company over the past 11 years as the textile industry has declined.

Hunter, who started folding sheets at the Grace complex in 1990, was laid off from her post at the Springs Customer Service Center in Lancaster in December 2005. Just like the scores of people flooding her office this week, she went to the Workforce Development Center to collect unemployment and start looking for a new job. Her experience working with customers helped secure her current job helping people find work.

"I'm living proof that there's life after Springs," she tells her clients. "You've just gotta keep your head up and realize the past is water under the bridge."

Hunter and her colleagues agree that, despite a textile industry that's quickly shipping jobs overseas, there's still hope for displaced workers.

Make training a priority

Janet Thomasson, director of the Chester County Workforce Development Center, said the number of people coming through her doors seeking help has risen quickly since the recent layoffs. Her advice: Make training the top priority before looking for a new job.

"Most folks are going to need some training, even if it's just some basic computer skills," she said. "Many of these folks are people who have worked for years and years and never had to look for a job."

Thomasson said the center, operated by the S.C. Employment Security Commission with branches in every county, can help people plug into educational resources. Everything from General Equivalency Diplomas and adult education classes in local school districts to occupational training at York Technical College and University of South Carolina's Lancaster campus is available to job seekers, she said.

Thomasson said the centers also offer resume building classes and interview training, paid for by the Workforce Investment Act. She said the high number of recent layoffs has launched plans to offer some basic computer classes, too. She said the goal is to train people while they're still employed or receiving severance so they can land a new job before the money runs out.

Jobs in warehouses, driving trucks in the health-care industry and the education field are all possibilities for workers willing to go back to school, she said.

"Maybe people will understand, there is hope out there," Thomasson said. "We work tirelessly to get people back to work."

Danelle Faulkenberry, education director at the Fort Lawn Community Center, said one of the biggest hurdles facing many former textile workers is the education gap between them and a younger work force. She said 60 percent of the textile workers who are laid off started their jobs as teenagers decades ago and never received a high school diploma. That's why her center wants to educate workers on how to get a GED or go back to school.

"When you've been a supervisor in a mill, a good job, for 30 years, it's hard to step back and say, 'I don't have my high school diploma,'" she said.

'We need more jobs'

While opportunities exist outside the textile industry for individuals ready to learn something new, employees looking to go right back to work may have a rocky road, experts say.

Ray Martin, a staffing consultant for Express Personnel employment agency, said matching textile manufacturing workers to similar job categories isn't the problem. It's the number of positions available.

"We have plenty of people. We need more jobs," he said Thursday while processing applications at a career fair at USC-Lancaster.

Martin said his staffing company takes applicants' names and skill sets to employers in hopes of finding a match. He said most textile workers have the skills needed to work in a distribution warehouse or with simple machinery. But automation is replacing many of those jobs with computers, he said.

"We have good, qualified people who have a lot of experience, but unfortunately, a few of them fall through the cracks," he said.

Another popular industry for displaced textile employees is the maintenance field. Dean Campbell, a recruiter for Michelin Tires, said his company is hiring maintenance technicians for plants in Lexington and Greenville. Though the number of positions is limited, he said many former textile workers have a solid resume because of their valuable experience working with large machinery.

"If you have technical skills, they're marketable almost anywhere," he said.

Careers on the road

Don Crisp knows what it's like to start over. The regional director for the Carolina Driving Institute went into the trucking industry after being laid off from a North Carolina mill years ago. Now, he encourages others to follow in his footsteps.

"I'd hire 50 people today if I could find them," he said. "Every carrier is begging for drivers."

Linda Vastag agrees. As recruiter for Carolina Cargo, a trucking company in Rock Hill and Chester, she spends hours begging workers to spend a few weeks to get the training to drive big rigs. Though the time away from home can be tough, Vastag said pay starts at $600 a week and up, and some couples team up to drive together. There's also plenty of job security.

"Carriers can't get people fast enough," Crisp said. "And it's not because people are leaving. The freight industry is just growing that fast."

'Go back to school'

Tony Gandy is a former supervisor at Springs' Grace plant who was forced to take early retirement last year after 40 years working in the mill. He said he's too old to start college, but he offers an emphatic word of advice to anyone recently laid off: "Go back to school."

He said getting trained in a professional field with a long future will be worth the time and money because any job in manufacturing carries a risk of being shipped overseas.

"Go into health care," he said. "They can't export nurses."