Although Robeson County’s unemployment rate has declined by about half since it peaked during the Great Recession, a lot of people remain unemployed or underemployed, and looking for a step in a better direction for them and theirs.
Need some evidence? According to officials with Sanderson Farms, more than 4,000 people have applied for work with the Mississippi-based company, which will be opening a hatchery in Lumberton during October and a chicken-processing plant near St. Pauls in the wee hours of 2017.
About 350 have been hired, leaving room for 850 more, and when they all are working, Robeson County’s unemployment rate, now at 7.2 percent, will drop precipitously, perhaps to or below the North Carolina and national averages. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 3,602 people in Robeson County residents actively looking for a job, so there is room at Sanderson Farms for 3o percent of them, though we know the plant will employ folks from neighboring counties as well.
The jobs are the most obviously example of the benefit of Sanderson Farms choosing this county for the plant, which will process 1.25 million chickens a week — or a mind-boggling 125 a minute. While the blue-collar work is hard and most of the jobs not well-paid, the wage is livable in this area and they include wonderful benefits, especially for health care and retirement. Then there is the advantage of taking people off the couch and putting them into a workplace, and what that can do to repair self-esteem that is battered when work cannot be found. These will be people contributing to society, and not depending on it.
The company will provide a number of white-collar jobs and while we expect a lot of those employees to be hired locally, we know Sanderson Farms will bring in a few as well, people who tend to become leaders in the community — and we could use a fresh perspective.
Sanderson Farms has a reputation as being civic-minded, and Bob “Pic” Billingsley, director of development and engineering for the company, told the Lumberton Rotary Club this week that the company would immediately get involved with United Way of Robeson County and, once business is good, look for other charitable causes to support.
Then there are the property taxes the company will pay to Robeson County, St. Pauls and the city of Lumberton, providing revenue that can be used for a number of public purposes, and while we doubt that any tax rates will go downward, there is the possibility that future hikes can either be dodged or delayed.
Remember that Sanderson Farms picked Robeson County after two rude receptions in other counties, including Cumberland. We believed all along it would be a great fit in a rural and agricultural county such as Robeson, and worries that it might pollute groundwater were trumped up. There are just too many regulations in place and, according to Billingsley, the United States Poultry and Egg Association recently said the company has the best wastewater treatment process of all poultry companies in the United States.
We are happy the county is starting to realize some of the benefits of Sanderson Farms picking us, and appreciative to all of those who made it happen. We believe it can be a game-changer for our struggling economy.