Constructive Unemployment. Idled workers skill-up in their downtime while Columbus, Neb., plant undergoes conversion.

By Amanda Halbersma February 18, 2016

Cargill’s Columbus, Neb., meat processing plant may be idled, but the people who work there are not.

About 100 of the plant’s current and former employees are skilling-up in their downtime by participating in an innovative “people plan.” While the former ground beef plant is undergoing an $85 million conversion to a cooked meats facility, employees are attending courses towards their GEDs and degrees, or improving their English/Spanish skills. Some are also volunteering in the community. 

The “Columbus Works” initiative, a public-private collaboration at the state and local levels, was created as a way to maintain - and even augment – the level of talent on the staff. It will also help displaced workers retrain for jobs in the area. 

“The Columbus team has worked very hard to accommodate for employees, customers and Cargill during this business transformation,” said John Niemann, President of Cargill Turkey and Cooked Meats. “This successful collaboration between the Cargill Columbus team and local organizations has resulted in a customer solution that also helps great employees continue to make a living during a transitional phase.”

inpage-Columbus-employmentIsabel Romo teaches a writing class as part of the “Columbus Works” initiative.The Cargill Columbus team created the program as a response to the specific employment needs of the community. 

“Cargill has all kinds of competition for talent in Columbus,” said Kim Schumacher, who helped design the plan. “The unemployment rate here is around two percent. Our biggest fear was if we laid off the entire workforce we’d never get them back. We were challenged with: ‘What are we going to do with these people? We need to keep them engaged.’”

When the plant closed in December 2015, approximately 80 positions were eliminated. The other half of the production staff was retained, with pay, along with about 20 members of the maintenance staff and 20 managers.

To help bridge the gap during the six-month plant conversion, employees were offered an opportunity to go back to school. The plan is supported by a $465,000 grant from the state labor department, as part of a collaboration between the Platte Valley Literacy Association, Central Community College, the state departments of Education, Labor and Economic Development, ESU 7 (the county educational service unit), the Columbus Family Resource Center and Cargill. 

“The commitment from all of the support organizations, to literally drop everything and prioritize this program’s development and success, has been key,” said Bernie Hansen, manager of the Nebraska Department of Labor Columbus Career Center. The grant for the program was submitted and approved within two weeks in November, allowing classes to begin in December.

Daily routines still have familiar aspects for the 100 or so plant employees who opted in to the plan. They arrive at the building, park in the lot and greet their co-workers. But then instead of heading inside to work, they board a school bus and go to the nearby Central Community College or the Platte Valley Literacy Association -- with their Cargill-branded backpacks in tow.

They attend structured training or traditional track classes for five hours every weekday, and then some come back to the plant to study together. 

The course offerings range from the basic – such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and introductory writing - to college-level courses in subjects like psychology and microeconomics. Even the general manager is taking a Spanish course. The curriculum and testing programs in place at Platte Valley Literacy and Central Community College determined the most appropriate classes for each student. 

Columbus plant employee William Galindo was already taking several college courses in addition to his job at the plant. He attended school for hours before his eight-hour shift began. Now, he says the free classes offered in the gap before he re-starts work will help him earn his coveted degree sooner. 

“I really love this opportunity that Cargill is giving us,” he said. “I always like to feel that I’m moving up, and here at Cargill I have that opportunity. I have friends who work at other companies in town and they are just jealous. They say ‘I wish that my company would do that for us.’” 

Some plant employees are expanding their skill sets by working as teachers in the program. Cargill Human Resources Generalist Emily Vasina is teaching current and former plant employees a writing course. Many of her students are among the approximately 80 employees who were laid off. The Department of Labor has deemed the Columbus Works program an officially “Approved Training Program,” so while they take classes, laid-off employees are able to collect unemployment and are exempted from having to look for work.
Vasina said the program is fulfilling needs that she noticed while working at the plant. As a Spanish speaker, she was often asked to help some of the employees schedule doctors’ appointments and read progress reports from their kids’ schools. Many tell Vasina that they might not have ever tried to go back to school if it weren’t for the program. They thought they were “too old” or would not feel comfortable in the traditional classroom setting.

“These classes are with their peers, so they are within their comfort zone,” said Isabel Romo, who also teaches writing at a basic level. “And someday, they will be able to do their own things, including being able to apply and interview for jobs. It will open a lot of opportunities for them, in life, as well as with their families at home.”

The benefits to the students who were laid off could still end up impacting Cargill, Schumacher said. 

“The intent is that we are going to equip the dislocated employees to possibly come back and join the team,” Schumacher said. 

The plant, once converted, will feature different technology, requiring different skill sets. Nearly 300 employees will be needed to run it – dozens more employees than the plant previously employed. 

The broader community also benefits from the program. Idled employees can opt to participate in community volunteer work in their spare downtime. Since the program began, they have logged more than 450 hours, mainly helping with donation drives. 

“I’m really having fun with it,” Vasina said. “At the end of this six months, I want to see that all of our employees prosper.”

Doug Pauley, director of training and development at Central Community College, is truly impressed with how the program is working. “I have worked at Central Community College for over 25 years coordinating training programs, and I think this is the most exciting and rewarding training program I’ve offered,” Pauley said. “When I consider the knowledge we are providing for these individuals, I believe we are impacting their lives and their families’ lives for many years to come.”