Manufacturing jobs fade away around Augusta

Jenny Dunn went back to school after losing her Avondale Mills job. She now has a job with the Aiken County government.

When Avondale Mills shut down in 2006, thousands of workers were forced to look for new employment.

For Jenny Dunn, a 17-year veteran of the mill's Gregg Plant in Graniteville, the closure meant a search for a new direction -- and a new career.

It also meant she joined a large group of people who could no longer count on making a living in the manufacturing sector -- particularly in Aiken County.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 1990 the manufacturing industry accounted for more than one-fourth of the jobs -- 27.3 percent -- in Aiken County for people 16 and older, by far its largest employer. By 2008, the percentage had tumbled by nearly half, surpassed by education, health and social services.

Today, Dunn, 54, works in Aiken County government as a senior deputy clerk for the Registrar of Mesne Conveyance, which processes public information about mortgages, deeds and tax liens.

After being laid off, Dunn took advantage of worker retraining opportunities to enroll at Aiken Technical College and graduated with an associate's degree in business technology, majoring in management and marketing.

"I had just put two daughters through college. Working with them and all, my brain still was working," Dunn said jokingly. "I am the type of person that I am going to do it, no matter what."

Manufacturing employment has also dropped in Richmond and Columbia counties over the past 28 years. By 2008, manufacturing was no longer one of the top three industries in Richmond County, replaced by arts, entertainment, recreation and accommodations and food services.

In Columbia County, manufacturing had dropped to 11.9 percent of employment in 2008, down from 15.7 percent in 1990.

Rene Chandler, the manager of the One Stop Plus Center in Aiken County, said those numbers don't surprise her. The center, which opened in 2006, helps displaced workers.

"It's a huge program and because the manufacturing field is not very prominent at all anymore, we direct those people into a new occupation, a lot being the health industry," she said.

Dunn said she is now more confident about her ability to adapt to the changing job market.

"I know that if I lost my job tomorrow, I have my education that I could use to turn around and get another job," she said.

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