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South Strives to Boost Jobless Workers' Skills

Haywood Community College in Clyde, N.C., is about to face the biggest challenge in its history. In 18 months one of the county's major industries - a rubber manufacturer - is shutting down, leaving 800 employees jobless. Haywood's task: helping retrain them.

Many of the workers have been with the company for 30 years and lack the skills to compete in today's workplace. Some will need basic reading and math classes; most will need to learn a new skill for a different industry.

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The situation in Clyde, located in a rural county of 48,000 in western North Carolina, illustrates the growing challenge that the South faces in retraining its aging work force. Upgrading the skills of these workers is becoming a regional concern as manufacturing plants close or downsize and the numbers of unemployed, older workers increase.

"In the South right now for every plant we're bringing in, a lot of times we're losing several plants," says Sam Wiggins, director of the regional high-technology center at Haywood Community College. "And for each worker who loses a job, there's probably four or five others who are affected."

Though retraining older workers is an issue that confronts the nation, some say it's a greater problem in the South because many workers are less educated than they are elsewhere. And demographic trends indicate the numbers of older workers will grow in the South, meaning they will play a critical role in its economic future: By 2010 the region will have 8 million more people age 45 to 64 and 800,000 fewer people age 20 to 45, according to MDC Inc., a think tank in Chapel Hill, N.C.

While many community colleges are stepping up to the challenge on their own, a collaborative effort among states and community colleges is needed, says MDC president George Autry.

Mississippi, a state usually at the bottom of most lists in many areas, has become a model in this regard. In 1994, Mississippi passed its work force education act that involves all 15 community colleges, the business community, and the state. Each college has set up a "skill tech" center where companies can send workers for retraining. If a company in a town shuts down, the state sends in a team to assess what reeducation the employees need to locate a new job. They also link up with other industries to find out if they can place people. The program is state funded.

"By and large this has been a great economic development tool," says George Walker, co-chairman of the board at Delta Wire Corporation in Clarksdale, Miss. "Companies are saying they'll move to Mississippi because of the training." People in poor, rural areas of the state have benefited as well.

When management at Standard Equipment, a machine-tool manufacturer in the Delta area, offered its employees a chance to upgrade their skills through a class at a community college, Roy Brooks jumped at the opportunity. Mr. Brooks, who runs a bore-mill machine at the company, says the class taught him "new tricks, old tricks, shortcuts," and new technology. "In this area it's hard to come by skilled labor," he says. The training initiative "helps folks that don't have training get prepared."

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Many of the South's workers who will need new careers work in textiles, apparel, tobacco, metal-fabricating, and other industries that are moving offshore, scaling back, or becoming more technological.

Community colleges will have to become more proactive to address the needs of the future work force, says Carlyle Ramsey, president of Danville Community College in Danville, Va., a community that has about 40,000 manufacturing jobs.

"We don't feel we can afford anymore for the companies to come to us," Mr. Ramsey says. "We send representatives to companies to tell them what we think we can do for them. If what we're doing is not what they want, we develop customized training. We do this the way a business would go out and sell a product."

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