Sociation Today

Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Spring/Summer 2015
Volume 13, Issue 1

Helping Displaced Workers:
A Case Study of Human Capital and Community Factors


Samuel J. Grubbs

Sabrina L. Speights

Beth A. Rubin


    Over 50 years ago, as President Kennedy faced a period of significant economic uncertainty, he told a special session of the US Congress that large-scale unemployment was intolerable" (Kremen 1974). Shortly thereafter, he sent the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) to Congress and it eventually became law.  This legislation marked the first significant piece of legislation since the Employment Act of 1946 in which the US Congress sought to affect the US employment situation. Governmental assistance to the unemployed has been a mainstay of domestic policy since the inception of the MDTA. Recently, President Obama's policies have identified community colleges as a vital resource for addressing present unemployment (Office of the Press Secretary 2012).  The President has argued that community college training can help improve the economic well-being of the less educated, and he has sought funding develop programs for the unemployed at community colleges.

    Despite a variety of federal and state programs targeting help for unemployed workers, questions remain about the best strategies for assisting those who are displaced from their employment (Krueger 2008). Some scholars suggest workers will naturally migrate to the highest paying job without any outside assistance (Harris and Todaro 1970). In this view, public assistance is not necessary because people can move to where the best jobs are located. Though this perspective is understandable, it fails to account for the social and community ties that people have that could retard that migration. Those following the counter perspective argue  that it is important to target aid for education to help the unemployed get job in their communities (Brown and Park 2002).

    In the context of the re-employment of workers who have not only been displaced, but who also live in deeply entrenched, multi-generational communities; we think an understanding of community is central to understanding the relative success or failure of these education-targeted legislative initiatives. That is, theories of embeddedness suggest that in addition to the economic logic that would encourage displaced workers to take on the costs of returning to school later in life, the social context in which they are embedded will also contribute to their decision and to the success of their efforts to get back to work (Granovetter 1985).

    Present federal policies assume that more education will lead to good, middle-class, jobs, that is, jobs that provide a decent salary, some security, and opportunities for mobility (Kalleberg 2011). Many previous studies have, however,  only examined large, cross-sectional samples of displaced workers with various educational backgrounds who take part in different training programs (Decker and Corson 1995, Jacobson, Lalonde and Sullivan 2005b, Ting 1991). These studies may miss some important differences among programs and the communities they address. Overall, programs intended to help the unemployed are not homogeneous (Leigh 1990). Many times, the program differences are because of the characteristics of the local labor market and economy (DiPrete et al. 2001). Therefore, we examine a case study of one large-scale, post-displacement training effort to understand how the effects of human capital theory may differ for older workers with a limited education in a small community rather than younger, more educated workers in larger areas where alternative employment is easily possible.

    The research investigates displaced workers' decision to go to college and use Federal educational assistance in one community (Kannapolis, NC) that was affected by a large factory closure (Pillowtex/Cannon Mills). We use a case study research design to better understand the experience and decision-making processes of displaced workers. The research focuses on the social, institutional and economic effects of workers' post-displacement experience.

    The purpose of this project is to build an explanatory bridge between effectiveness of education, community, and post-displacement employment of these displaced workers. We contend that conditions other than human capital play a role in future employment and thus ask two focal research questions:
  1. How effective is receiving a community college education in helping displaced workers obtain higher quality jobs?
  2. How do community factors affect the job search process for displaced workers?
The present case study is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the size of the displacement as a proportion of the community is considerable. Also, the amount of displaced workers who pursued the educational option (at least initially) at the local community college was large (about 1/3) and comparable in size to the former workers who chose not to pursue education (around 2/3). The lessons learned from this displacement retraining can be helpful to other communities that have changed after losing manufacturing jobs. Our research can contribute to better understanding the effects of community college training programs for displaced workers and the role that communities in helping displaced workers get back to work.

Kannapolis, NC as a Textile Town

    Cotton and textile mills have had indelible links with the culture of the developing Southern United States since the early 1800's. Around 1834, over half of the value of all US exports came from harvested cotton from Southern plantations (Gallman 1970). Once the Civil War was over, the South became considerably more industrialized around cotton production. Small communities across the South that were once reliant solely on producing agricultural goods like cotton adapted and built factories for cotton textile production (Dye 2010). During most of the 1900's, Southern factories transformed cotton crops into final textile products that were being used all over the country. These factory towns became like extended families with factory bosses as their leaders. Multiple generations of families worked for the factories, and towns began to prosper around factories.

    The 1950's ushered in a period of prosperity and development among factory towns across the South during which poor farmers became middle-class textile employees. Multiple generations of families worked for the factories, and towns began to prosper. For nearly 100 years, Southern textile manufacturers were the dominant force in the market (Minchin 2013). Mill jobs provided a middle-class lifestyle for many low-educated people. Eventually, the dynamics of the market changed. Since the 1970's, the labor market has shifted away from blue-collar manufacturing jobs (Rubin 2012), and the South has been particularly affected by lowered trade barriers that have made foreign textiles much cheaper than ones made in the US (Minchin 2013). Almost the entire Southern textile industry has been eliminated, and the once thriving communities either adapted or faded away. When textile jobs left, much of the low-educated, middle class lifestyle of the South disappeared as plants closed and workers were displaced.

    One Federal program that helps displaced workers adjust to losing employment is the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) Act. This act was originally set up as a part of the North American Free Trade Agreement to provide income, insurance, and educational assistance for up to two years to workers who had been displaced due to businesses closing because of international competition (Employment and Training Administration 2011). The effect of TAA assistance on displaced workers' post-displacement earnings is questionable because it is difficult to identify the  specific impact of the help among the variety of displaced workers with different levels of previous experience and education (Decker and Corson 1995). Nonetheless, TAA efforts have political backing especially from representatives in districts that have been affected by increasing unemployment (Galantucci 2014).

    This study is about one such community, Kannapolis NC that grew around a textile manufacturer, Cannon Mills. This story is like that of many small Southern factory towns that started at the turn of the 20th century. James W. Cannon started what would become Cannon Mills in 1887 and moved the mill operations to the current site of what would become Kannapolis, NC by 1906 (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004). Charles Cannon, James Cannon's son, took over the business in 1921 upon his father's death. Charles Cannon continued to expand into the 1970's (Mock 2012). By the 1970's, Cannon Mills had developed a strong (and somewhat dominant) market positions in the towel and sheet markets within the US.  Yet, as with most manufacturing businesses in the US, the positions did not last.

    Charles Cannon, who ran the business for 50 years, passed away in 1971. The family that owned the company for almost a century sold it to David Murdoch in 1982 (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004). In 1985, Cannon merged with Fieldcrest to become Fieldcrest-Cannon. By 1997, Pillowtex, a Dallas-based textile manufacturer, bought Fieldcrest-Cannon during a time of industrial consolidation. The firm continued for several more years but went bankrupt in 2003 and permanently shuttered all of its associated plants (Minchin 2013). This plant closing sent shockwaves through the region. In total, around 4800 people associated with the Cannon Mills facility were displaced (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004).The closure doubled the unemployment rate within the community almost overnight. Workers were left without comparable employment opportunities since the textile manufacturing industry had almost been totally eliminated from the state. The town that grew up around the factory was left without its dominant employer. Into that breach stepped Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (RCCC).

    With no clear idea for employment opportunity for the future, almost 75% of the dislocated workers (many without a high school degree or equivalent) had an interest in community college course offerings, an interest  that changed RCCC almost immediately (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004). Most of the former employees were eligible for TAA assistance. Since many of these employees had roots in the community, more than 70% indicated that they did not want to leave the area. By going back to school with assistance, they could continue to receive supplemental income (once their unemployment benefits stopped) and all schooling was paid for by the government. RCCC was, therefore, responsible for developing the educational experience of those displaced workers who sought training. Approximately 1600 former Pillowtex employees enrolled at RCCC after the plant closed (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004). These new students enrolled in curriculum courses (604 people), basic skill courses (like ESL or GED, between 500-600 people), and short non-credit courses that emphasize certain skills (between 400-500 people). Since that initial survey of former workers who enrolled in the community college system, there has been little follow-up on outcomes from those who sought additional education for help.  We turn now to a discussion of theory and the context of this case study in the larger body of literature on displaced workers.

Explaining Education and Post-Displacement Employment
Theoretical Background

    The rationale behind the government's present TAA policies relies heavily on the economic theory of human capital, suggesting that additional years of education leads to higher incomes (Becker 1993). Education has been widely cited as a tool for economic advancement around the world (Benhabib and Spiegel 1994, Brown and Park 2002, Wedgwood 2007). Economic theory suggests that embarking on a college education represents an economically rational choice to improve a person's future earnings. Applying this logic to displaced workers' investment strategies is, however, not so clear-cut. Becker's theorizing does not account for the possible effects of employees' ages or family commitments, something that we find is very important to this case of  displaced workers. We argue that human capital theory is insufficient for explaining the effectiveness of additional education for workers post-displacement. Though the availability of government resources to offset lost income is a key tool for encouraging displaced workers to go back to school (Ting 1991), economic and sociological literature identifies a variety of other factors that play a major role in job re-attainment success (Granovetter 1974, Koeber 2002, Leigh 1990).

    Granovetter (1985) suggested that behavior (including the choice to go back to school), is embedded in networks of interpersonal relations. The decision to pursue education in lieu of going straight back to work is, therefore, not based solely on an understanding of the profit-maximizing potential of the alternatives as human capital theory assumes. Workers make decisions in a larger social context that includes extant social support, and the interpersonal and community relationships in which they are embedded, something that that human capital theory overlooks. Our research investigates the integrative role of socially embedded relationships in displaced workers' pursuit of employment by gaining more education. Overall, the process that displaced workers experience is complex and challenging and incorporates more than mere economic rationality. Drawing on sociological insight, we point to the role of community embeddedness as key to understanding these workers' post-displacement experience.

Factors and Policies Affecting Reemployment

    Previous studies have examined the characteristics associated with reemployment programs. In an early study of the relevance of training, Ting (1991) found that there was a positive employment outcome when displaced workers took part in basic skill training, job-specific skill training, or on-job training. Decker and Corson (1995) found that TAA programs were helpful to workers who were permanently displaced from their jobs and who had experienced significant earnings losses. The results of their work fail, however, to provide substantial evidence that training programs had a substantial positive impact on the earnings of TAA trainees during the time after their initial unemployment insurance claim. In a multi-site study, Leigh (1990) examined the effectiveness of nine different training programs used across the country for assisting displaced workers, and suggested that skill training should be limited and should be matched with trainees' needs. In a pair of studies, Jacobson, Lalonde, and Sullivan (2005a, 2005b) found that one year in a community college had a positive effect on long-term earnings; the results depend, however, on the level of technical skills needed for employment. Additionally, Simmons (1995) found a direct relationship between the length of a person's time in one of these programs and the likelihood that they would drop out.

    Other research has considered the relationship between unemployment rates and program effectiveness. Lechner and Wunsch (2009) found a clear positive correlation between high unemployment rates and the effectiveness of training programs in getting participants back to work. Additionally, Greenburg, Michalopoulos and Robins (2003) note that training programs were no more effective when unemployment rates were higher than when unemployment rates were lower.

    Research has considered the effects of income loss during displacement. Fallick (1996) suggests that employment and salary outcomes for workers after displacement are greatly influenced by larger economic conditions in their community. Jacobson, LaLonde and Sullivan (1993) demonstrate a significant negative effect of displacement on future earnings. This effect can continue for many years past the initial downturn. More recent studies continue to confirm that displacement depresses wage earnings years after workers are reemployed (Hijzen, Upward and Wright 2010, Von Wachter, Handwerker and Hildreth n.d.).

    Though there is no clear agreement on the actual effect of displacement on wages, research has found that age, race, gender, and levels of education influence reemployment potential. Reemployment outcomes among displaced workers vary substantially with the affected workers' age; oldest workers are particularly hard hit  (Chan and Stevens 1999, Smith and Rubin 1997). African-Americans experience higher levels of work displacement than do white workers (Kletzer and Fairlie 1998, Moore 1992). Gender effects on reemployment have been less consistent in the literature (Koeber and Wright 2006, Perrucci, Perrucci and Targ 1997). Research does suggest that women with children remain unemployed longer after displacement than do those without children (Smith and Rubin 1997). Additionally, upon reemployment following displacement, workers with higher levels of education retain a larger percentage of previous and similar job titles than do workers with lower levels of education (Lippmann and Rosenthal 2008).

    The proposed research contributes to the literature by assessing how multiple factors play a role in determining the return to education for displaced workers. Displaced workers face a challenging situation when trying to re-enter the workforce (Smith and Rubin 1997). If present policy makers only consider average returns to schooling, they will have an incomplete understanding of how education affects reemployment success.  We hypothesize that success in completion of education and the successful pursuit of good future employment may be a function of the workers' connections and their community (Granovetter 1974). Additionally, we suspect that the effectiveness of a community college education is a function of the displaced workers' ability and desire to pursue educational options not in general service and support industries.


    We conducted 42 semi-structured interviews with former workers at Pillowtex/Cannon Mills. We conducted by phone and in person. We audio recorded and transcribed the interviews. We analyzed the transcriptions using NVivo version 10. This software is optimal for running qualitative analysis because it allows researchers to input the transcribed files and examine trends in interview responses. With this program, we examined the interview data and focused on the decisions that the displaced workers made about post-displacement strategies. We read through the responses to investigate the themes that emerged in the data concerning the decision to go to school and how the education received may have impacted the workers' futures.


    We found that some of the former workers did not return to the workforce. Of those who did return to work, most did not achieve the same level of success and pay as they previously had had with the mill even among those who went to community college. A few moved to other production industry jobs in the area while many moved into service industry occupations. Not all the former workers used the government services provided to help displaced workers, most were cognizant that many other former workers had needed and received help.

Previous Education

    Many of the people that we interviewed had a high school equivalent or less prior to the plant closing (32 out of 42). According to Beatty, Longman and Tran (2004), about 40-50% of the laid off workers had not completed high school. Twelve respondents had not finished high school when interviewed. Most of the people with a high school education or less that we found worked on the floor of the factory. The ten other respondents, mainly those who had worked in management and administrative jobs, had some college education prior to the factory closure. Therefore, most of these workers should have benefited from their post-secondary educational experience.

Pursuit of Education

    The effect of educational support through TAA was mixed. In Kannapolis, there was a concerted effort among those handling the mass layoff to provide TAA opportunities for the laid off workers. The community college doubled in size rather quickly. State and federal politicians worked together to coordinate a response that afforded most workers the opportunity to go back to school  (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004). The TAA benefits only last for two years and many were not able finish an associate's degree in that timeframe. A number of the former workers did not have a high school equivalency degree, so they could not even start taking college courses within the two year window they had available. Some of the former workers did not think it was worth it or were too proud to get their high school equivalency.

•    "Whenever the plant closed, I was 64 years old so I went on ahead and retired." (Man, 72)

•    "He refused to go back because he felt like people would laugh at him…. He would have had to get his GED."  (Woman, 65, referencing her son.)

Some people who had already completed high school pursued more specialized education in vocational fields.

•    "He took advantage of the school and went for a truck drivers training course." (
Woman, 66, in reference to her husband.)
•    "I went straight and started working on my 2-year and it was actually Medical Office Technology." (Woman, 57.)

Many of the displaced workers finished less than they wanted to do at colleges. Some of the former workers had to leave college before finishing a degree because they needed to obtain a higher level of income than the payment the government offered or they did not have enough time to complete a program before their funding expired. Several completed certificate programs in lieu of associate degree courses.

•    "When I say help, I went to school. …once I got started 58 years old you know I was older than some of the teachers …When the money ran out, I ran out."  (Man, 67.)

•    "I didn't complete the [associates] degree. I completed the diploma course." (Man, 65).

•    "I only got my CNA.  I was going for RN, but it got too tough."  (Woman, 34).

Transition to Employment

    The transition back to work after the mill closed was tough for many. Some of the workers with previous training or education did not have so much trouble finding employment. They were able to use their previous experience to resettle in a different company.

•    "I was actually offered a job while I was in the class." (Man, 66, who completed an associate's degree.)

•    "I had went back to school and was a certified nursing assistant and so when the mill closed, I just started looking for work." (Woman, 65).

•    "I was pretty fortunate.  I threw my resume out probably about 2 weeks before and I was actually only unemployed for 6 days so I really didn't experience what some of the other folks had." (Man, 37).

    Most of the respondents had much more trouble finding an appropriate job and spent months looking. Of the 30 respondents that discussed their post-displacement employment, only 4 had positive experiences, most expressed considerable frustration about the types of jobs that were available in the community.

•    "I did finish high school, but, outside of that, I don't have no education, and these high tech jobs in this time…I can't do them. I ain't qualified to do them." (Man, 71, who completed GED after plant closure.)

•    "They reduced my unemployment by $200 a month…so, after I got the GED, I started looking for a job. I worked a few days for one of the temp services…and they didn't need me anymore." (Woman, 64).

     Ten of the people interviewed who had trouble finding work felt that their age was a hindrance to pursuing meaningful employment. There was a lot of talk about age discrimination and the reluctance of some former workers to start a new profession given their age at that time.

•    "I could never get a job even after I went to college and passed all of them. Because like I said to start with, I was 58 years old."  (Woman, 65, who completed an associate's degree.)

•    "At that time, I was 52 years old, so even with the degree and my past background, it was difficult to find a job." (Woman, 61, who completed an associate's degree).

•    "Nobody wanted someone who had no experience and again the age….People don't want to hire someone that's over 50 years old." (Woman,  57, who completed an associate's degree).

    Many of the respondents ended up working for less money than what they used to make when they worked for the mill 10 years earlier. Almost all who were working took jobs that had positions that were at a much lower status than what they used to have at the mill. There was a lot of frustration and disappointment in the type of work they do and the amount of money they make now.

•    "It will be 9 years in July, [and] I make probably 50% less." (Woman, 60, who completed an associate's degree).

•    "I suffer a lot and I still suffer.  The money wise went way down. Now, I'm just making a little bit over minimum wage. So, it hurts real bad. And, I don't have no benefits."  (Woman, 51 who completed an associate's degree.)

•    "Well, the wages don't compare. I would probably say I'm just now making what I was making when I left Pillowtex.   (Woman, 61.)

•    "I am grossly under employed." (Man, 65 who completed a certificate program.)

Summary of the Human Capital Findings

    The interviews highlight many of the problems with the human capital argument. When Becker (1993) did his study, he only looked at young high school graduates. In our analysis, we examined people with very limited education like those who were originally studied by Becker. Unlike the young students that Becker studied, the people we interviewed were much older. The effect of human capital development through education is not so clear when we consider factors such as age. When we look at these beneficiaries of educational assistance through TAA, we can see that four factors that contribute to understanding the implications of the human capital argument with respect to displaced workers in small towns.

  • Age – Older people were less interested in going back to school. They also had more trouble pursuing work. Previous research on displaced workers did not controlled for age (Decker and Corson 1995). Becker's (1993) original work was only with young people who were deciding whether or not to enter college. It seems that we must consider the role of age in the job search process.
  • Previous Education – People who had very little education prior to the closure had a lot harder time finding work. The education benefit covers only 2 years, so many people had to take very basic courses initially when they started at college. Starting at a low level hindered many of them from finishing an associate's degree. It is also likely that many were dissuaded from going to school because they had to start at such a low level.
  • Transferable skills and previous experience – People who had transferable skills and previous experience, mainly those in management and administrative support, had an easier time finding new jobs. Consistent with the human capital argument, some of the people with previous experience went back to school to gain credentials, so they could move into other positions. Most of the people who only worked as machine operators and similar positions had much harder time finding new types of employment even with additional education.
  • Location factors – several people moved to other areas to find work; however, many people were location bound; many had already purchased a home in the community and did not want to leave. Nine of the respondents cited their long history in the town. Others felt they would lose more if they gave up what they had to pursue possible work elsewhere. These people had to find employment in an area where few alternative options for work existed.
There are, therefore, many factors besides the degree that a person receives that affects his or her employment potential. In particular, Berg and Gorelick (2003) note that education credentials have little relationship to job performance. Furthermore, Granovetter (1974) emphasized the importance of social connections in finding employment. Evidence from these two arguments were very present in the discussions. Some of the people that we interviewed were, in the words of Granovetter, "a little lucky" in their search for employment, while others could not get past barriers that limited their potential for new work. The effect of community institutions was very important to the post-displacement process, particularly the role the town and support services was highly referenced in our interviews but has been understated in previous literature.

The Effect of Community

Picture 1: Photo of the Gem Theatre in downtown Kannapolis, NC

    Many former employees had strong feelings about the town. Of the 13 who discussed the town, eight reminisced positively about how the town used to be. When the mill was operative, the downtown (noted in picture 1) was a bustling location in which the former workers shopped and socialized. The mill provided the anchor for the town. The loss of which was deeply felt not only in terms of  the lost jobs, but in terms of the town as a center of social and civic life. A few noted a sense of loss of connection with the town once the mill closed.

•    "I don't go to Kannapolis much because to be honest with you it just makes me sick to my stomach." (Woman, 57.

•    "I don't regret working there at all. I just hate what happened to the town and to some of the folks because that's all…some of them that's all they knew. You know, that was their entire life." (Woman, 61.)

•    "It really hurt Kannapolis. Kannapolis is not the place it used to be. It was a thriving little community."   (Woman, 65.)

After the mill closed, many of the downtown shops were shuttered. Presently, there are very few businesses in operation at the center of the town. Most of the housing is still in the same design as it was when it was constructed for the workers over 60 years ago (an example noted in Picture 2). Though there has been a lot of development at the outskirts of town, a considerable number of the housing units in the middle of town are as they were when they were owned by the mill and rented out to the workers.

Picture 2: Example of former mill housing in Kannapolis, NC

    Many of the former workers had to adjust to lost relationships in the community that they had developed through their work in the mill.  Five specifically discussed dwindling connections with others in the community. When the company faltered, many of the social connections faltered as well. Former workers had a strong sense of loyalty to the community and to the jobs they used to have but there was nothing to sustain those ties.

•    "People were very attached to that place, and I've never been at a job where there was that much just emotional attachment." (Woman, 49.)
•    "Um, you develop a certain number of friends and we kept in touch for a long time, but after a while you know how that is. You lose those connections…You know how that goes. They just dwindle by the way-side when your life changes." (Woman, 61.)

     Many people that we interviewed did not receive assistance other than the TAA and unemployment to help with their day lives. Five talked about feeling that they were on their own once the mill ceased operations.

•    "I didn't lean on nobody but I lived at home with my mom and dad and that helped me out a whole lot financially to live with them.  If I didn't have them, I wouldn't never made it – ain't no way.  Financially I would have been in ruins."
(Man, 48.)

•    "I didn't really get no kind of help from anybody else." (Woman, 50.)

•    "I tried [for more help], but because at that particular time my husband was working [outside the mill], I was told we did not qualify. I mean we could have used some, but we were told we did not qualify." (Woman, 57.)

    Often in small towns like Kannapolis, the community plays a key role in the helping displaced workers adjust to their life after a factory closes (Speights and Grubbs 2013). Ten years later, many of the social connections formed through working at the mill have deteriorated. The impact of the closure has been felt for years afterwards. The town has transitioned in the 12 years since the mill closed. The mill was demolished a few years after the closure and a new, state-of-the-art research center, the North Carolina Research Campus (noted in Picture 3), is now located where the mill once stood. Though it brings a new focus on the town, many former workers were not supportive of its presence on the site of the former mill. Many felt that the new facility was not for them.

•    "Well for maybe for the graduates of college and stuff it might be fine but we was under the impression when the mill shut down and this was built that there would be a lot of jobs even for our ages – and it's not."  (Woman, 57).

•    "The majority of the Pillowtex people could not even get a job there." (Woman, 57.)

•    "There is very few people in this area that was qualified and probably still qualified to be there it's got to be outsiders coming in.  That's how I feel about it." (Woman, 65.)

•    "We were thrilled when we heard Mr. Murdoch was going to build a thing up here, but then right away we heard 'You can't job up there because you got to have such a high degree.' A scientist or a chemist or you know…something way like that."  (Woman, 65).

Photo 3: Research building at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, NC

     The feelings about the research campus were not consistent among all of the former workers. Many former workers welcomed and appreciated seeing the new research facility in the town.

•    "I'm glad they tore the mill down because if they hadn't it would have been an eye sore." (Man, 67.)

•    "Oh it's nice. I've been through it and its nice had a lot of money spent on it."
(Woman, 74.)

•    "We go once a year, give blood work, we do our paperwork. We are on their research paperwork. I don't hold it against them." (Woman, 57).
    Overall, the community has changed. Community and connectedness are key to getting people back to work in a small town. When people lose their jobs, they lose connections they have with their community; it becomes much harder for them to adjust to their position as job seekers. Social connections, support and opportunities are key to getting back to work (Granovetter 1974). In small towns, we must recognize the importance of community development when addressing large-scale unemployment. Without the support of community, unemployed workers can feel lost and alone (Hironimus-Wendt 2008, Minchin 2013)

Long-term Resources

    Rowan-Cabarrus Community College decided to develop a long-term focus on helping people who are out of work. In 2007, the college officially opened the Refocus, Retrain, Re-employ (R3) Center (noted in Picture 4). The center has a task force that comes out when business are closing or downsizing in the two counties where the community college operates. Staff from the center talk to employers about how to prepare employees for the closure and talk to employees about the options that are available to them once the business is closed. So far, the center has assisted more than 6000 workers from 28 mass layoffs in the community (personal communication).

Picture 4: The R3 at RCCC in downtown Kannapolis, NC


    We are in a time of a transitioning economy. Traditional manufacturing positions are scarce in the Southeastern United States. In response to these shifts, government has stepped in small ways to assist in improving education for the unemployed. Though the efforts to improve education are beneficial, the impact of additional education on the unemployed is mitigated by other factors as we have discussed above, including a person's previous education and experience, age, and location characteristics.  These other factors play an important role in shaping displaced workers' future labor force participation. Many of these factors are highlighted by the community in which a person lives, yet the influence of community factors are underappreciated by policy makers seeking to help get people return to work.

    The policy success that did exist in Kannapolis was due, in part, to the high level of political support the community received. RCCC received $4 million in funding as part of a $20 million emergency grant from the Department of Labor (Minchin 2013). U.S. Representative Robin Hays, who came from a mill family, was instrumental in providing political support; a network tie that highlights the importance of community. Both North Carolina Senators sought support for the 4800 workers who lost their jobs and worked actively with the executives of the mill to prepare for the closure (Beatty, Longman and Tran 2004). Because of the active support and we expect the community ties, there was a quick response to the Pillowtex mill closure. This active approach was is in sharp contrast to that in other states. In South Carolina, for example, Springs Mills ceased U.S. operations in 2007. With that multi-facility mill closing, almost 4200 workers lost their jobs in three South Carolina counties (  With very little government support, workers who lost their jobs in the Springs closing were not so able to find jobs (Inskeep 2008). Some of them went to work at a chicken processing plant in another county. Many just fell out of the labor force.

    This study expands current theory and helps researchers understand the impact of community on the adjustment of displaced workers after being laid off and inform government agencies of how to best assist displaced workers. Though the results in North Carolina were somewhat mixed, 9 of the 10 former workers that we interviewed who did go back to school and completed a post-secondary education were able to get re-employed, just not at an income level that the previously had (only 2 indicated that they moved to a better position). Previous research indicates that the overall effect of education on employment and salary among displaced workers is consistently positive (Decker and Corson 1995, Leigh 1990, Ting 1991), yet our study indicates that the individual effects for displaced workers can vary greatly. The salaries and types of employment that displaced workers were able to receive, however, differ from person to person. Overall political support for the unemployed is critical for helping get people back to work. There is little indication that a human capital arguments can be appropriately applied to older factory workers who are dealing with the transitioning economy.

    There is no one clear policy remedy for helping displaced workers in all business closures. Displaced workers come from various socio-economic backgrounds and skill sets. Our research indicates, however, that future political actors should consider integrating community resources more deliberately when dealing with mass worker displacements, particularly in small towns.  The responses our responses indicate that displaced workers feel on their own once they lose their jobs, which is consistent with previous work (Hironimus-Wendt 2008). Furthermore, community relationships are very critical in small towns (Orvell 2012). Having access to federal, state, and local resources helps displaced workers adjust (Minchin 2013). Integrating resources into community support structures can help to blunt the traumatic impact of workers' displacement and strengthen the possible benefits of community college education on workers' pursuit of future employment.


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Editorial Board:
George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Robert Wortham,
 Associate Editor,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Rebecca Adams,

Bob Davis,
 North Carolina
 Agricultural and
 Technical State

Catherine Harris,
 Wake Forest

Ella Keller,
 State University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Steve McNamee,

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

William Smith,
 N.C. State University