Laid-off cotton mill workers face tough choices

Wilma Rider started at the bottom when she went to work for Mount Vernon Mills.

She quit high school at 17 to take a job running looms at the cotton mill in tiny Alto, north of Gainesville. That first job, as a ring spinning operator, paid $6.78 an hour.

Now 42, she’s worked her way up to night manager. The company has been good to her, she said. She always thought she would end her career there.

“It’s what I hoped for, but obviously that is not the case,” she said.

Last month, Mount Vernon Mills announced that it would close March 9 and lay off its nearly 600 workers.

For more than five decades, the mill gave generations of local workers like Rider a future. But the manufacturing jobs that depend on nimble fingers, strong hands and a willingness to work hard are disappearing at an ever-faster pace because of the rise of automation and a changing economy.

Mount Vernon’s departing employees are staring in the face of the 21st century — where 66% of Georgia jobs that offer a livable wage will require post-high school education. They now have to decide if they should try to get on at another cotton mill, start over again at a different factory, or go back to school to become more viable in manufacturing or another profession. While there may be federal money available for retraining the laid-off workers, taking advantage of that will be disruptive and difficult for many.

Rider and her husband bought a new home three years ago and need her income.

“I can’t get by on unemployment,” she said.

But she knows finishing her GED is the stepping stone to a better future.

Flush economy covers the cracks

In some ways, the mill’s closing couldn’t have come at a better time for the workers. A layoff of nearly 600 would typically devastate such a small community, but these are unusual days. Unemployment in Georgia is at a generational low at 2.9%. It’s even lower around Alto. The mill sits near the spot where Banks, Hall and Habersham counties come together. Unemployment is 2.2% in Banks and Hall counties, according to the state Department of Labor.

As soon as Mount Vernon Mills announced its pending shutdown, companies looking for workers spiked help-wanted signs into the ground near the plant entrance.

Mark Ivester, the president of North Georgia Technical College in nearby Clarkesville, said, “I can’t leave the college and get out in the community without someone telling me they need workers.”

Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms, a chicken processor 10 minutes up the road from Alto, has already hired about 25 of the laid-off workers and would take more.

“We are all woefully short of labor,” he said of industries in the region.

Hensley said Fieldale had to shut down some operations because they couldn’t find enough workers. The immigrant-heavy industry is suffering doubly because a local immigration crackdown caused workers to flee.

Anyone who doesn’t have a job upon leaving Mount Vernon Mills is not really looking for one, Hensley said.

But, while the flush economy is providing jobs for any willing worker, two long-term trends are working against unskilled laborers who want to stay in manufacturing. The percentage of workers in that field has declined steadily. At the same time, the remaining jobs increasingly call for higher skills as the economy evolves toward automation.

In the 1950s, 1 in 3 people in the country worked in manufacturing. Today, it is fewer than 1 in 10, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And recent job postings show how quickly demand for a more educated manufacturing workerwith vocational training or certifications, is growing. Between 2014 and 2018, as job postings in Georgia increased by 29%, postings requiring vocational training or certifications jumped 71%, according to information compiled by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

That growth is driven by changes in how American manufacturers make things. Robots and more complex machinery are replacing workers, so factories need fewer unskilled people and more who have advanced training, such as mechanics to keep robots running, welders and electricians.

Ivester said North Georgia Technical College is assisting Mount Vernon employees in finding work or training.

Some already have transferable skills. “But, out of 600 workers, I am guessing there are a lot of those that are just entry-level textile workers. I am thinking those are the ones that need to come and be reskilled,” he said.

Mount Vernon pays line workers roughly $12 to $17 an hour, workers interviewed said.

Ivester said those graduating from a 30-week welding course can start out at $17 an hour at local manufacturers, such as Kubota, the tractor and utility vehicle maker about 13 miles from Alto.

Cotton is not king

The Mount Vernon closing is the latest in a long string of Georgia cotton mill closings, dating back to the 1970s.

While many people don’t see a future in working at such plants, some workers plan to stay in the business.

Kelly Hembree, 47, still has kids at home. He is thinking of applying at one of the cotton mills still operating so he doesn’t have to start at the bottom again in a new job. There are two mills about 15 to 20 miles away and one about 40 miles north.

Randall Lewis, 56, of nearby Cleveland, Ga., came back to the mill seven years ago for a job. He also spent a stint there in the 1990s.

“For lots of people, it’s the only job they ever had,” he said. “I was going to ride it out to the end here. I really like the job and the people.”

At his age, Lewis said, he’s not thinking about going back to school, and he’ll look around to find another job.

“I’ll just go wherever the Lord leads me, wherever he opens a door,” Lewis said.

But a lot of the younger mill workers are talking about taking advantage of potential free training to get a new skill after the layoff, he said.

Night-shift manager Rider is determined to get her GED. Meanwhile, her daughter-in-law, who also works at Mount Vernon Mills, likely will take advantage of retraining.

Rider said she might be interested in a job at nearby Lee Arrendale State Prison, which would have a starting pay of $31,000 a year. But, for that, she has to have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Rider is also interested in possibly switching gears and trying to get into a medical field as a phlebotomist, a health worker who takes and handles blood samples. Again, that would take a GED and then more schooling. She’ll have to try to work that in around the schedule of whatever job she holds next.

“I was settled in where I was at,” Rider said. “I don’t like changes, but I’m going to have to make a change.”