Looking for work

Wanda Wright flips through job offerings at Chester County Workforce Center. The 58-year-old woman spent 19 years at the J.P. Stevens mills of Great Falls, then 21 more years with Springs before those plants closed.
Wanda Wright flips through job offerings at Chester County Workforce Center. The 58-year-old woman spent 19 years at the J.P. Stevens mills of Great Falls, then 21 more years with Springs before those plants closed.

CHESTER -- Wanda Wright's hope lies in four blue binders at the Chester County Workforce Development Center.

At least twice a week, the 58-year-old woman drives her Ford Focus to this office, takes her seat at a circular table and spends an hour searching through the job offerings in Chester, Rock Hill, Lancaster and Winnsboro.

Any listing might bring her back to the world of the working, the place she was a part of for 40 years, toiling in Chester County textile mills until she was laid off on Dec. 23, 2006.

She first came to the employment office in January. She was terrified. For the first time in her life, there were no mills to turn to. Those mills had lured her parents and their 10 children away from the West Virginia coal mines with the promise of better jobs. Those mills enticed her as a teenager, offering a way to pay for school clothes and help her family.

She spent 19 years in the J.P. Stevens mills of Great Falls. When it closed, she spent 21 more with Springs. Now, she is divorced, her children are grown and she's starting over.

"It's hard for people to find a job out there, especially at my age," she said. "It's hard if you ain't got no training or skills but textiles."

Wright isn't alone. She's one of the 1,760 people on the county's unemployment list. The latest figures from the S.C. Employment Security Commission show that Chester County has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, the fourth consecutive month the county has held that mark.

Textile layoffs and plant closures accounted for 2,583 of the nearly 5,000 jobs lost in York, Chester and Lancaster counties from 2005 through March.

But Chester took the biggest blow -- 1,666 jobs -- and that's not including those positions lost this summer when Springs Global closed its final two South Carolina textile plants, one of which was in Fort Lawn.

Altogether, more than 4,000 jobs have left the county since 2002.

Departed looms, however, are only part of the problem. Years of political instability have hurt the county's attempts to land industry, experts say. Couple that with a labor force rooted in textiles and a county where most people lack adequate reading skills, and local leaders say the result is a grim unemployment rate that falls among those in the so-called "Corridor of Shame," the label a 2005 documentary film gave to a swath of impoverished South Carolina counties along Interstate 95.

While various local agencies offer training and assistance for the unemployed, some of the people working for those agencies say the organizations don't effectively publicize their offerings and, in some cases, fail to network with other local groups because of immediate concerns such as funding and staffing.

The result is the continuation of a mill culture -- one that traditionally valued employment over education -- in a place where the mills no longer exist, educators and local authorities say.

"This was the textile industry," said Ron Westbrook, director of Chester County's adult education program. "So, you have this rural group of people who were hard-working people in that industry. But now that that industry's gone, what we're finding is those people who worked every day now find themselves unemployed, and they do not have the skills to find a new job because the skills they have are outdated skills."

'That team no longer exists'

Wright admits she's in that position. Although she often worked overtime in the mills, her experience as a weaver doesn't help her in today's job market.

She estimates she has filled out more than 50 applications and sat through more than a dozen interviews. She even applied for security jobs -- "If they want me to carry a shotgun, I'll do that, too," she said.

For some applications, she's asked to take tests, but she gets lost filling out those exams.

"I haven't been to school in 40 years," she said. "I don't know what they're talking about. (But) put me on a job and show me something, I can do it."

Every time she calls a company to follow up, the answer is always the same: The job has already been filled.

Some former textile laborers have looked for work at GAF Materials in Chester. One of the challenges many of these workers face is that their training is limited to a specific industry, said John Sageser, the company's human resources and safety manager.

"Because people worked at Springs for the duration of their careers, they didn't have necessarily the opportunity to have a broader range of skill sets," he said. "What they have is very strong for that field. But they don't necessarily have the breadth of training and exposure."

Part of the struggle for these workers is finding an identity with another company, Sageser said.

"I think it's especially hard for the folks coming from Springs because they come from being part of a team and knowing what that's like, and now that team no longer exists," he said. "So, it's a real challenge to find out where can they find that team and what can they go back to being part of."

'Who am I going to hire?'

To get a job today, having fundamental math and reading skills is a must, along with a basic computer background, Westbrook said.

Employers also are looking for people who can understand graphs and charts. Westbrook said industry professionals have told him there's a great divide between what businesses now demand and what Chester's workforce can provide.

"The first comment they (companies) make is, 'Who am I going to hire? I have to either bring my people with me or pull people from other plants into this new plant," he said. "Because the local people don't have the technical skills that I need to fill these positions."

To illustrate his point, Westbrook shows two pie charts illustrating national workforce needs in 1955 and 2005. The "unskilled" section, at 60 percent, was the largest piece of the pie in 1955. That same section took up a mere 12 percent in 2005.

"A lot of these people that are now unemployed are in that category," he said of the unskilled section. "What they did was fine, and I'm not putting that down. ... They did a service to themselves, to their country, to the county they worked in, to the company they worked for. They were a necessity. And they raised a family doing that. But all of a sudden ... the job went away. Now here they stand with these skills, 1955 skills, but they're in this era."

In order to bridge her educational gap, Wright recently started taking computer classes at the Fort Lawn Community Center. She's also studying math, working on her multiplication tables and division, reading word problems and learning to use a ruler.

Wright's battles are similar to what instructors at community centers throughout the county see. Basic skills, particularly literacy, are at a premium in Chester County.

The National Institute for Literacy reports that 68 percent of the county's residents can't read above a fifth-grade level, said Dee Fedrick, director of the Chester County Literacy Council. That figure includes 30 percent who can't read above a third-grade level.

For years, "education wasn't necessarily deemed as important," Fedrick said. "The utopia was ... Springs would always be here."

Why has Chester struggled?

York County also went through bleak times when it lost many textile jobs, said Rick Whisonant, a local affairs specialist at York Technical College. But unlike Chester, York County had Winthrop University and York Tech, institutions that gave people a chance to start over.

York Tech offers some courses in Chester County, where a 31,211-square-foot facility is being built.

Chester's volatile political history also has hurt its attempts to land industry, Whisonant said.

County officials know that industries aren't interested in coming to a place where those in authority can't get along, although some say the current county council, which has been in power almost a year, leads in harmony.

"Why do you want to take your plant somewhere where your county leaders and your city leaders are absolutely fighting like dogs and cats?" County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey asked. "That doesn't happen with this council. ... We have a stable government that's working hard to make things better."

Although he has hope for the future, Roddey knows times are hard in Chester, where more than 16 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

Some of Chester County's problems feed themselves, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.

"A lack of education leads to poverty; poverty leads to less education," Huffmon said. "Something has to step in and stop the downward spiral, and it's not going to stop on its own."

Another problem facing the county is a lack of efficient networking between the agencies and organizations that assist the unemployed.

The people who work for these agencies, particularly those that are grant-funded, say their programs already aren't publicized or utilized enough, but another issue is that immediate concerns about budgets and staffing often get in the way of developing effective partnerships.

In some cases, the agencies duplicate services. In others, their organizational guidelines won't allow helpful alliances.

"We need to find out more about each other," Fedrick said.

Despite the unemployment problems, some Chester County leaders don't see such a dismal situation.

Some workers have found textile skills could transfer into other fields, said Jan Thomasson, director of the Chester County Workforce Development Center.

"The loom fixer is actually a machine fixer," she said, noting that with minimal training some former textile workers can learn to fix other equipment. Textile laborers also possess certain skills, she said, that are important to any job.

"They know how to go to work every day," she said. "They know how to show up on time."

Chester County Economic Development Director Karlisa Parker said some people have the wrong perception of textile workers.

"They tend to think about old-school textiles," she said, referring to workers who could only perform one task. Springs workers, she said, "were trained and re-trained."

"I don't bat an eye about selling my workforce," she said.

A ready-made labor force of former textile workers was actually a selling point for Poly-America, the plastics company that announced last year it would build a plant in Chester County.

"That's how we sell the workforce," said Hal Stone, the county's existing industry coordinator. "We don't have people ... that know how to do what your company does, but there are people who are willing to learn."

Although some computer-driven companies need more specially-trained workers than the county has, Parker hopes that with the arrival of the York Tech campus, she'll be able to one day tell those businesses that they can find many of their workers in Chester. That campus is expected to open in January 2009.

Chester County schools also are doing their part to encourage students to think about their careers earlier in life, Superintendent Larry Heath said.

The district's schools are emphasizing middle school education about different trades and professions and the training needed for those jobs.

Despite recent "below average" ratings on the district's report card, Heath stressed the county has seen some educational successes.

He couldn't name specifics but said the district is seeing gains in a hodgepodge of academic areas.

Heath also said the schools are well aware of the lingering effects of the mill culture.

"The challenge is trying to get students to see that we're living in different times now," he said. "Those kinds of jobs are pretty much not available."

Wright knows this. That's why she's at the employment office, where the people behind the counter know her on a first-name basis. She's surprisingly optimistic in the face of so many rejections, saying that her faith will get her through.

Armed with folders of resumes and copies of her clean background check, she goes through the blue binders again, looking for that one, liberating listing.

"You're gonna have to start from scratch to do anything," she said. "The thing of it is, they've got to give me a chance. I need a chance."

Chester County Workforce Center

764 Wilson St., Chester

(803) 377-8147

Services: Assistance in obtaining unemployment, resume and interviewing workshops

Chester County Adult Education

161 Columbia St., Chester

(803) 581-9324

Services: GED, WorkKeys, computer, family literacy, reading and math courses

Fort Lawn Community Center

5554 Main St., Fort Lawn

(803) 872-4491

Services: GED, WorkKeys, computer, reading and math courses

Chester County Literacy Council

808 Dearborn St., Great Falls

(803) 482-2525

Services: Reading, math and applied technology courses