June 21, 2013 12:37:04 PM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
Ten years ago, Alan Nunnelee faced a similar situation now looming over about 80 employees at West Point's Navistar Defense plant: job loss at no fault of their own.
The Golden Triangle plant is suspending production of armored vehicles due to federal sequestration cuts and the gradual wind-down of the almost 12-year war in Afghanistan.
The plant's employees were notified yesterday, and production lines will halt July 5. Shares of Navistar International fell 11 percent on the New York Stock Exchange following the announcement.
Nunnelee became unemployed in 1993 due to a corporate merger, he said. The now-U.S. congressman who represents Clay County called the experience one of the most devastating moments of his career.
"Unfortunately in a fluctuating economy, that's always a part of it. I know it's no consolation to those workers, but I hope they land on their feet quickly," he said.
While the Navistar situation seems bleak, officials point to workforce retraining as a spring board for unemployed workers to find mobility in the job market. Such programs at East Mississippi Community College are expected to play a large part in assisting workers rebound for other demanding industries, Golden Triangle Development Link CEO Joe Max Higgins said.
"At the end of the day, I don't think it gets any better than EMCC," he said. "They get in there, find out skillsets and weaknesses, and then get jobseekers built up so they're marketable for a variety of jobs."
"We're going to do our best (to assist workers). PACCAR is in hiring mode; there are a couple of others out there looking for skilled workers," Higgins added. "At the end of the day, these workers will get somewhere."
"Having toured the plant and seen their work, I know they're highly qualified, skilled workers," said Ron Maloney, Clay County's primary economic development representative with the Link. "I think they will have an easier time of finding new employment than other situations might have offered."
While the workers' futures after July 5 are uncertain, economic developers look to the incoming Yokohama investment as potential for former Navistar employees to find jobs. The tire company's fourphase, $1.2 billion investment could create at least 2,000 jobs by 2023. Jobs are also expected to be created during construction efforts at the Prairie Belt Powersite.
The problem is unemployment relief isn't expected from the Yokohama project any time soon.
Construction on the first portion of the plant isn't expected to finish until 2015.
But industry losses remain seared in West Point and Clay County, an area affected by numerous closures in recent years. County unemployment numbers continuously remain among the state's highest. In April, the local jobless rate decreased to 17 percent, or approximately 1,260 unemployed workers.
Incoming Mayor Robbie Robinson said West Point residents will do what they've always done in the face of volatile economic times: remain resilient.
"Any time you lose an industry or one slows down, it produces a domino effect in our community. That's also 80 individuals and families affected, and I hate to see that for them," he said. "We're grateful that (Navistar) came along in the period they did and provided jobs, but I do regret this for those workers."
"We're remaining cautiously optimistic," West Point Chief Administrative Officer Randy Jones added.
"I wish we had a bunch of jobs open right now for them. Obviously if we have any resources come available (to assist Navistar workers find jobs), we'll be more than happy to assist."
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch