Superior Closure Sparks Northwest Arkansas Efforts To Find Jobs for Workers

Melissa Turner said it was a somber day said when the news came down that Superior Industries was closing its Rogers plant.

Superior, a maker of aluminum wheels for automobiles, announced July 30 that the Rogers plant would cease operations by the end of 2014 and, with its closing, most of the plant’s employees would be laid off. Some may transfer to Superior’s plants in Fayetteville or Mexico but a vast majority won’t — Superior’s announcement said about 500 people would lose their jobs.

But this is when the community stepped in, and not just Rogers either. Turner, the general manager of the Rogers plant, was almost immediately contacted by business and community leaders from across northwest Arkansas.

Turner said the gestures meant more than what was offered, although the promises to help with jobs and training were deeply meaningful. Turner said the community outreach to Superior’s workforce changed the mood overnight.

“It has been totally uplifting,” Turner said. “Everybody was worried and sad when it happened. But now, everybody has got some momentum that it is not only going to be OK, it’s going to be better.

“Everybody went from under a cloud to over the cloud.”

Cameron Smith has made quite a handsome living finding executive jobs for Wal-Mart vendors. He offered his staff’s services for an intensive training workshop called Street Smarts to help Superior’s displaced workers prepare to find new jobs after the ax fell.

When Smith has held Street Smarts workshops previously, attendance was almost always full. For Superior workers, Smith offered his workshop free.

“There’s going to be a lot of people to step up,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of people laid off at the same time. These people need help now. However they want to do it, we’ll do it.”

The trickiest part was arranging the schedule around the different shifts of the workers, whom Turner knew would want to participate. On Aug. 18, Smith announced that there would be three three-hour workshops held on three consecutive days beginning Tuesday with different start times to accommodate everyone.

The workshop will show workers, from the executive level down, how to research job opportunities, how to write resumes and cover letters that sell specific skills and how to handle job interviews.

“It’s truly a gift these people are going to get,” Turner said. “I’m going to take advantage of it too.”

There are also two job fairs in the coming months, one on Sept. 24 at Superior and another arranged by the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce in October at the Hammons Center. Local chamber officials Tom Ginn of Bentonville-Bella Vista and Chung Tan of Fayetteville have sent emails to spread the word among their member companies that experienced workers would soon be available.

“Let’s look after our own,” Tan said in an email message.

‘We Take Care of Family’

None of this outreach effort has surprised Raymond Burns, the president and CEO of the Rogers-Lowell chamber. The rivalry between cities may get played up when their high school football teams play, but there is a noticeable all-for-one mindset when it comes to business.

“It’s a lot of anxiety, but northwest Arkansas is family and we take care of family,” Burns said. “We’re here to help each other.”

Burns said he expects many of Superior’s displaced workers to make connections at one of the two job fairs. Many of the workers qualify for the state’s program to provide 18 months of job training for laid-off workers, Burns said.

Turner said financial advisers will attend the September job fair to advise workers how to handle their severance packages and retirement funds that will need to be rolled over or otherwise transferred.

“We’ve had great response from everybody in all the communities,” Turner said. “People were worried when the chips were going to fall.”

There had been whispers in the air that Superior’s plant in Rogers was on the chopping block. When the company announced its second-quarter earnings July 31, one day after announcing the closure, it blamed some of its poor financial results on the plant’s operating struggles.

The plant, built in 1989, can produce 1.75 million wheels annually, the company said, but high scrap rates and low production hurt its financial performance. Rather than spend money to upgrade the facilities, the company will close the plant, shipping some of the $22 million of equipment to the Mexico plant while saving an estimated $15 million in labor costs even after including $2 million to $2.5 million in severance pay.

Turner said the layoffs are scheduled to begin in October and would continue in “buckets of 50” through the end of the year.

Turner, 50, has worked with Superior for eight years in two stretches and doesn’t know what her future is, although she said she would like to stay in the area.

“I’m getting everybody else first; then I’ll figure me out,” Turner said.