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With their last day behind them, Canton mill workers plan to use ‘the grit of the people’ to move forward

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  • Mill workers gathered together for one last time at the Mill Town Strong resource fair on June 16, 2023.
  • Haywood Community College will continue to provide educational and workforce opportunities for mill workers including a new scholarship.
  • The town of Canton continues to gather data through a community needs survey to learn more about impacted mill workers and their families.
  • The Dogwood Health Trust is providing 1 million dollars to the United Way of Haywood County to go to immediate financial assistance for mill workers and their families. 
  • North Carolina has also received a $7.5 million federal employment and training grant to support workers affected by the Pactiv Evergreen layoffs.

Since the news broke in March that Pactiv Evergreen planned to close its mill in Canton, workers and their families have been left wondering what’s next. 

The last day of work for most workers was June 8, and now they are looking to the future. 

Earlier this month, hundreds of mill workers and their families gathered at the Mill Town Strong Career & Resource Fair to learn about potential opportunities for employment moving forward – the largest resource fair for workers to date.

Production at the mill in Canton began 115 years ago. Since 1908, the mill has been inextricably linked with the identity of the town. The past few years in Canton have been especially trying. In addition to the pandemic, Haywood County Schools had a ransomware attack in the summer of 2020 and historic flooding hit the town in 2021. 

With the mill coming to an official close at the end of June, the town is left to muster up the mountain grit that has become all too familiar to them and the grace to move forward though yet another historic hardship.

People gather at the entrance to the Mill Town Strong Career and Resource fair. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

One last gathering

The job fair that took place on June 16 was the largest resource fair for workers to date. It was put on by a collaboration of efforts, including NC Works, the town and county, and local community colleges.

While Canton will continue to support former mill workers, this job and resource fair was the last time the mill workers will be together at a formal event.

Over 70 employers showed up to the fair to provide information for job opportunities in the region. The following sectors were represented at the job fair: manufacturing, logistics, public safety, construction and trades, hospitality and tourism, health care, information technology, government, and education.

Many people walked away from the job fair with more than just information about new careers. A nonprofit organization called E2D gave the first 200 people in the door a free refurbished laptop. E2D is a Charlotte-based organization that works to close the digital divide through access to technology and digital skills.

Two people receive free refurbished laptops from nonprofit E2D at the Mill Town Strong Career and Resource Fair. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

With the challenge of securing new employment taking center stage, many workers will seek educational opportunities or workforce training at Haywood Community College (HCC).

One former mill employee, Marty Inman, has already found a new job at Haywood Community College. Marty was born and raised in Haywood County. He spent 10 years working at the mill, where his father and grandfather both worked for the duration of their careers. He will join Haywood Community College in July as their development of workforce coordinator.

“If it wasn’t for the mental toughness and the grit of the people working in the mill, it would have shut down years ago. It’s always been looming that the mill was going to shut down. For 35 years, for as long as I can remember,” Inman said. “The employees and the workers found a way to keep it going. That’s still gonna be there. That sense of community isn’t going anywhere.”

Dr. Shelley White, president of Haywood Community College shakes the hand of Marty Inman, a former mill worker and new Haywood Community College employee. Alli LIndenberg/Education NC

HCC has played and will continue to play a large role in supporting mill workers and their families through this transition. Michelle Harris, director of marketing and communications for the college, attended the job fair with multiple other HCC staff.

“We’re going to be here when they’re ready. There are a lot of people that are still figuring things out with their severance and with their families, so we just want to continue to be a resource for the workers and their families, and then moving forward down the road, potentially even small business support,” said Harris.

Michelle Harris, director of marketing and communications for Haywood Community College, at the Mill Town Strong Career and Resource fair. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

The work continues

With the closing of the mill, the town and the county are trying to gather as much information as possible about the needs of the community, including workers and their households, and others. Results from this survey will be used to inform the work of the town, the county, the community college, and the school district. If you live in Canton or Haywood County, you can read more and take the survey here.

Support is coming in from other areas in the region as well. Earlier in June, Dogwood Health Trust announced they are providing a $1 million grant to the United Way of Haywood County to support the Canton Mill Closure Emergency Response Project. This grant will provide financial assistance to individuals and families in need as a result of the mill closure.

Gov. Roy Cooper recently announced that North Carolina has also received a $7.5 million federal employment and training grant to support workers affected by the Pactiv Evergreen layoffs. According to officials, eligible workers may receive career, training, and other support services as they work to secure new employment.

EdNC has been on the ground documenting the mill closure and its impact on the community of Canton since March. The work is not done. There is more to see on how leaders and the community are assessing and addressing needs in the coming months.

Through it all, the people of Canton remain. A community that has been carried by a grit and a grace that has become part of their identity, shaped by the challenges of this past year and beyond.

You can listen to a snapshot in time of what community voices are saying about this historic and trying moment for Canton in the Power of Papertown podcast series. Contributors include Mayor Zeb Smathers, Haywood Early College Principal Lori Fox, North Canton Elementary School Principal Jill Mann, and more.  

To stay updated on how things are unfolding in Canton, you can visit the Mill Town Strong website and Facebook page for resources and information.

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.