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Fort Payne Sees Future in High-Tech Education

Probably the greatest and worst thing about the U.S. sock industry is that it is open to anybody. You don't need a high school degree or any work experience to get a sock job.

"Wouldn't make a difference if you had a high school degree or not," says Robert Wills, a former sock worker. "They just look at how mechanically inclined you are. You won't learn that in high school."

Wills never finished high school. Why bother? It was easier to just go get a job in a sock mill, just like his mom and dad and most of his uncles did. Wills is 60 now and had a good career.

Like many in Fort Payne, Ala., Wills was able to acquire more and more sock-making skills. Eventually, he opened his own business, as a sock machine specialist. He'd come into a mill and fix broken knitting machines. He specialized in K-Ends and Crawfords, an older kind of machine that didn't have computer-based controls. By 2003, most of the mills that used those old machines had closed or invested in newer models.

Wills suddenly found that there was no demand for his specialized services. He got a full-time job at Durham Hosiery, one of the last mills that still used K-Ends. But even Durham was investing more and more on newer equipment with computers. And Wills didn't know how to operate those.

"With computer machines," he says, "it's more important to have an education."

Skills No Longer Marketable

Fort Payne is filled with people like Wills, who built entire lives around the sock mills. In a town of 13,000 people, there were more than 8,000 sock mill jobs just a few years ago. Every family had at least someone working in the mills. Some started on a cleaning crew, sweeping up lint, and eventually moved up to higher-paying jobs as a sewer.

It wasn't until the late 1990s that the U.S. started importing large numbers of socks from lower-wage countries, like China, Pakistan and Honduras. Since factories in those places were able to pay their workers less, manufacturers could cut away at the cost of making a sock.

Fort Payne's sock industry had a quick and vicious shakeout. Two-thirds of the 150 sock mills closed. Thousands of jobs were eliminated. Wills says he was given two weeks' notice and one day's severance when he was laid off.

In the space of five years, Fort Payne went from a successful town to one with a whole lot of laid-off high school dropouts with no skills marketable to anybody outside of the sock industry. Many were old enough that they just retired. Others moved out of town. Wills decided to get his GED — he passed the test on his third try earlier this year. He's now studying for the entrance exam to a local college.

He doesn't know what kind of job he'll try to get when he graduates. "No," he says. "That's what I'm trying to figure out."

Investing in Education

Jimmy Cunningham says Fort Payne has learned its lesson. It needs its citizens to be well-educated, so they can take advantage of globally competitive industries. Cunningham is superintendent of schools and he says the surest sign that Fort Payne is preparing well for the future is the Promethean Board.

Fort Payne is hoping to become the first school district in Alabama to have a Promethean Board in every classroom. These boards are 21st-century blackboards. They act as large computer screens: Teachers can easily display educational films and dynamic illustration. Each student has an input device at their desk, so the teacher can have instant-feedback quizzes and interactive lessons.

Cunningham says the boards aren't necessarily there for the brightest students, the ones who would have done well in school no matter what technology was there. The new boards are best at reaching the marginal student, the student who, a few years ago, would most likely have dropped out to get a job in the sock mill. Cunningham believes the Promethean Boards can help keep that student engaged a bit longer — long enough, he hopes, to actually graduate from high school.

There's another advantage, says Jimmy Durham, the county economic development office, who also happens to be the head of the school board. He says the Promethean Boards are "our No. 1 recruiting tool." When a new company is considering whether to open a new facility in Fort Payne, "I bring them here," Durham says, to the local high school.

Durham says businesspeople see that Fort Payne is so committed to technologically advanced education that it spent a small fortune (around $2 million) to improve its schools.

"It's a major reason to locate here," he says. Companies know that Fort Payne will provide a continual stream of well-educated high school graduates.

Reaching for New High-Tech Jobs

Durham says there has been a high-tech revolution in Alabama. Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Honda have all opened plants in the state. And that means a huge influx of parts suppliers. BAE Systems, a major U.K. aviation company, opened an engineering office in Alabama.

Durham says there are now more high-paying, high-skill jobs in the state than there are people qualified to take them. If Fort Payne's young people stay in school and develop more skills, he says, they can get these 21st Century jobs right away.

A casual observer would have likely thought that Fort Payne's economy would pretty much collapse if the sock industry disappeared. Most people thought Fort Payne's economy was entirely sock-based. So it's remarkable that these days, the economy is doing fine. Several new businesses have come to town. The unemployment rate has stayed the same, even as the population has increased. In other words, the number of jobs has gone up, even as thousands of sock-making jobs have gone away.

Things are not so rosy for everyone, of course. While some sock workers have found newer, higher-paying work, others have to settle for the new industry that doesn't require a high school degree: retail sales.

In the past few years, Fort Payne has seen an explosion of new, big box retailers, staffed with many people making half of what they got sewing socks. The hope is that their children—helped by things like those Promethean Boards—will do far better.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Davidson is a contributor to Planet Money, a co-production of NPR and This American Life. He also writes the weekly "It's the Economy" column for the New York Times Magazine.