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In N.C., A Second Industrial Revolution
With machines increasingly occupying the center of production, manufacturers want highly trained, literate workers at the controls. To meet the demand and help workers secure jobs, North Carolina has beefed up course offerings at its community colleges.
Three years ago, it set up Bionetwork, a training program based in community colleges, to feed workers into the state's growing biotech sector.
"All of the skills are closely tied to the workplace," said Norman Smit, Bionetwork's recruitment director.
Smit seeks students from declining areas of manufacturing. Given intensive training and a willingness to adapt, a textile or furniture worker can become a better-paid biotech technician, he says. As proof, he points to Regina Whitaker.
Ten years ago, straight out of high school, Whitaker went to work at a yarn texturing plant in Yadkinville, in the Piedmont region. Her mother had worked there for 30 years.
From midnight until 8 a.m., Whitaker tended to whirring machinery, alternately wishing for another job and worrying that she would actually have to find one: Her company was opening plants in China and Brazil and laying people off in Yadkinville.
"I couldn't see spending my life there," Whitaker said.
In January 2003, she enrolled in the first associate degree classes offered in biotechnology at Forsyth Technical Community College. Now 28, she graduated in July 2004 and was hired as a lab technician at Targacept, a biotech start-up in Winston-Salem that was spun off from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Where the tobacco giant had researched the use of nicotine to make people crave cigarettes, Targacept is focusing on the nicotine receptors in the brain to develop drugs for Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia.
Whitaker said her salary is "significantly more" than the $13.40 an hour she made at the yarn factory.
"I'm not struggling now," she said. "Before, it was paycheck to paycheck."
Textile Firm Finds a Niche
Glen Raven Custom Fabrics was another Carolina textile operation whose future seemed in doubt. In the early 1990s, the company was still concentrated on products under siege from foreign competition -- pantyhose, luggage fabric and yarn for apparel. Throughout the Carolinas, other textile companies were vanishing.
Glen Raven managed to endure and prosper by refocusing on specialty industrial fabrics for outdoor furniture, boats and awnings -- expensive goods that require customization, high-end machinery and technical expertise.