Van Buren chamber, UAFS working to help Tyson workers

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,726 views 

When news hit Monday (March 13) that Tyson Foods would close its chicken processing plant in Van Buren, folks in Fort Smith and Van Buren got busy working on how they could help the almost 1,000 employees facing unemployment after May 12.

Springdale-based Tyson Foods sent 969 employees WARN letters saying the last day of operation is slated for May 12 at the plant, which has operated in Van Buren since 1975 and has been expanded over the years. Tyson Foods did not provide details regarding benefits or options for displaced workers. The company only said it’s working with employees to provide opportunities for relocations where applicable within the company. Tyson also will close its Glen Allen, Va., plant on May 12, which will result in 692 jobs lost.

Administrators at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Center for Economic Development said Friday (March 17) they are committed to helping Tyson Foods employees find new opportunities through retooling and upskilling.

“We understand that plant closings can be difficult and that dislocated workers often face challenges when trying to find new employment opportunities. The Center for Economic Development will be offering a variety of resources and services to help these individuals navigate these challenges and move forward with their careers,” said Kendall Ross, executive director of the Center for Economic Development.

While the original news was a hard enough hit for workers at the plant and for the region, Ross said the economic impact has the potential to be far greater than immediate job losses.

“The ripple effect of a nondurable goods plant closure is estimated at 500 jobs impacted for every 100 jobs lost, according to the Economic Policy Institute,” he stated. “In other words, a plant closing of 969 jobs could have a ripple impact of more than 4,980 indirect job losses in the River Valley.”

That is why, he said, a collaborative system in place in the the area is vitally important.

Julie Murray, president and CEO of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce, sent letters to chamber members Wednesday (March 15) about resources the chamber is gathering for “our friends and neighbors at Tyson.”

Julie Murray, Van Buren Chamber of Commerce president and CEO

“First of all, we need to be patient and allow them all time to process what has happened and the options available to them within the Tyson organization. In addition, they are charged with maintaining the operation of the plant through May 12th, and we will respect that need and responsibility,” Murray said in the letter.

But there are things that can be done to help before May, she said.

The Van Buren Chamber, in partnership with the Crawford County Adult Education Center, has tentatively planned a Career Fair for the Tyson employees who will be looking for a new career April 26. Murray also encouraged chamber members to make sure their job openings are posted on the Chamber website.

“Let’s join together as a community and support all our friends at the Van Buren Tyson Plant to help them find their way into the next phase of their careers,” Murray said.

Twin Rivers Foods wasted no time seeking employees from the Tyson plant. A post on its Facebook page Thursday (March 16) said the company welcomes all former Tyson workers who want to work at its Second Street plant in downtown Fort Smith, saying it has openings on first and second shift and will honor Tyson seniority with Twin Rivers vacation schedule and holidays.

“You will be eligible for the Win Rivers group benefits plans immediately upon starting,” the post said.

Former Tyson employees will receive a sign-on bonus of $250 to $500 on completion of the first day of work and $250 upon completion of 60 days with Twin Rivers, the post said.

And as Ross said, UAFS has plans in motion and is ready to help anyone who wants help. University services include resume building, reskilling and training programs, job placement assistance, and entrepreneurial training.

“The CED will also work closely with the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce and local employers to identify new job opportunities and connect dislocated workers with potential employers and specific training that may be needed. In addition, UAFS offers both credit and non-credit education programs to meet the diverse needs of the Tyson Van Buren team members,” a news release from UAFS said.

Ross said the university has already secured funding for skills training and has the ability to retool the displaced workers at no cost to the individual. Training at the CED is available in both English and Spanish.

The UAFS Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center is also prepared to work with entrepreneurs who may be looking to open their own small businesses after the plant closes, said Bill Sabo, ASBTDC regional office director. The center offers comprehensive assessments, business planning, and lending strategy, including connections with microlenders which could be more flexible with first-time entrepreneurs than traditional lenders. The ASBTDC is also equipped to consult in English and Spanish.

“For displaced workers interested in entering traditional educational pathways, UAFS admissions advisors, including Spanish-speaking staff members, have agreed to attend job, education and placement fairs held at the Van Buren plant over the coming months. Individuals who need to continue working may be eligible for evening and online courses offered at the university, and those who have prior college experience may be able to apply to the university’s Adult Degree Completion Program,” the news release said.

There may also be the possibility for UAFS to provide funds in partnership with the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District to create no-cost education pathways for qualified dislocated workers to earn academic credentials up to and including bachelor’s degrees.