Surry County NewsRead about new business, events and news that effects life and commerce in the western Piedmont Triad.
We have all heard about the skills gap and challenges industry faces in finding skilled workers to fill jobs in a highly-automated and rapidly-changing global economy. To remain competitive, businesses must now become more deliberate in how they manage their talent supply chain.
Strategic partnerships between education and industry are more critical than ever. The need to act collectively to more closely align the education-to-work continuum has increased as our state and national economies creep closer and closer to full employment.
To be more responsive in the war for talent, Surry Community College (SCC) and its partner institutions in Surry and Yadkin counties are rolling out new innovative strategies that seek to better align workforce programs to the needs of area employers, close leaks in the talent pipeline, and thus become more responsive to the employment needs of businesses in their service area.
The effort started several years ago, when SCC and Surry County Schools began a joint effort to purposely connect STEM and career and technical education programs offered in the district’s middle and high schools to occupational and technical programs available at the college. The partners hold STEM Camps in the summer to bridge learning and experiences, and offer STEMersion Experiences for teachers so they can see first hand how the application of math, science, English and other core subjects are applied in the workplace.
Under the collective leadership of David Shockley, President of SCC, and Travis Reeves, Superintendent for Surry County Schools, a new approach was taken this past year to help reduce the cost and time to completion for students to become college and work ready. The Surry County Career Academy was created to replicate the early college model, which allows high school students to earn their high school diploma and an Associate Degree over a four- to five-year span, through an innovative high school framework that focuses on the workforce needs of local businesses.
The Academy was designed to be more responsive to area businesses’ employment concerns by building pathways in targeted business sectors that add an internship component to the educational requirements needed for graduation. Using the middle school STEM career exploration programs, career coaches would identify students with self-expressed interest in a particular career pathway and help those interested complete up to four high school courses prior to entering the Academy. This accelerated path would provide the additional time for students to complete most graduation requirements and enroll in SCC in their junior and senior years. These students take college classes part of the day, work up to 20 hours a week as an intern, and complete their third and fourth level math and English courses through a virtual platform.
With a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, the Career Academy started with 12 students, is expected to grow to 20 students in year two, and is expected to grow to 30 students in the third and final year of the grant. Each student was placed in an internship with a local business during the spring semester. Funds from Golden LEAF were used to hire a career coordinator for the Academy, to cover the initial stipends paid to interns for work, and to assist students with transportation to and from work. It is anticipated that participating businesses will contribute toward sustaining the internship component once it is fully operational.
Results from the initial year are impressive. Four of the 12 students recently graduated and signed employment contracts with their host companies. Two of those students have plans to continue studies at SCC. One graduate will be using the graphic design skills she learned at SCC in her job at Nester Hosiery. Another signed to continue working with Johnson Granite in the computer-aided design department. A third graduate was hired as a logistics technician by Leonard Building and Truck Accessories. And, a fourth signed to take a full-time job at Surry Communications.
Two of the four students hired by local businesses will continue their education at SCC while working. Four additional interns will begin four-year university programs in the UNC System. The remaining interns will return to the Academy next year to complete their senior year. In addition to the businesses, parents are showing strong interest in the program. After the initial year, more than 30 students have indicated interest in enrolling in the Academy for the 2018-19 year.
And there is more. SCC recently opened the G. Allen Mebane Industrial Training Center in Yadkinville. This expansion will offer citizens in Yadkin County the opportunity to get a college degree or meaningful credential without having to drive to another county. The Center will focus on the workforce demands of companies like Unifi, Lydall, and other manufacturing and logistics companies located along the I-77 and Highway 421 corridor.
This expanded footprint will allow SCC to offer training in the following areas to assist companies with their workforce needs: computer integrated machining, mechatronics, welding, electrical systems, electrical engineering, and truck driver training. Previously, individuals from Yadkin County that were interested were seeking employment and needed training in these fields had to drive thirty minutes one way from Yadkinville to SCC’s main campus in Dobson. In addition, the Yadkin County Commissioners have also provided funding to Surry CC to establish the Yadkin Guarantee, which provides students graduating from Yadkin County high schools free tuition to attend Surry CC programs at the Yadkinville campus.
The stage is set so that the innovative approach taken by SCC and Surry County Schools on the northern end of SCC’s service area can now be replicated in Yadkin County thanks to support from the Yadkin County Commissioners, Connect NC Bond funds, and grants from Golden LEAF, the Mebane Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Commission, Duke Energy, and the Cannon Foundation.
This innovative approach to better align the education-to-work continuum should provide benefits for all parties involved. Reducing the costs of attending college and the time to completion are attractive value propositions for students. A more responsive training system should also produce benefits to area businesses by having a larger pool of highly qualified workers available to help grow business activity in the area, and reduce the cost of hiring and retaining workers.
Eight engineering students at Surry Community College landed advanced manufacturing jobs in April at WestRock’s Merchandising Displays Division in Winston-Salem, right before the college’s spring commencement services in May.
Five of the students are studying in college’s Mechatronics Engineering Technology program, while three others are training in the Electrical Systems Technology program. They will all be working as Maintenance Technicians.
Newly hired Electrical Systems students are Michael Cummings of Rhonda, Aaron Morse of Pilot Mountain, and Alfonso Popoca of Boonville, while recently hired Mechatronics students are Shay Wilson of Mount Airy, William Davis of Mount Airy, Kevin Hernandez of Yadkinville, Jesus Fuentes of Yadkinville, and Andrew Overby of Yadkinville.
“On behalf of Human Resources and the Maintenance Department, I would like to once again say thank you for allowing us to visit Surry and meet with your extraordinary students,” Veronica Hritz, Human Resources Administrator at WestRock said. “Our Maintenance Department was in need of highly trained, quality people, and you were able to step in and fill that need.”
WestRock (NYSE:WRK) partners with customers to provide differentiated paper and packaging solutions that help them win in the marketplace. The company has 45,000 team members who support customers around the world from more than 300 operating and business locations spanning North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
“We have worked very hard to prepare our students for advanced manufacturing jobs such as the opportunity at WestRock,” said Doug Slate, Mechatronics Lead Instructor at Surry. “All of our Mechatronics students eligible for our upcoming graduation already have, or have been offered jobs. I am so happy for them all.”
Surry Community College offers the Mechatronics and Electrical Systems programs at the Dobson campus, along with the Yadkin Center campus in Yadkinville. At each location, students can earn a two-year degree in Mechatronics. Electrical Systems is a new program offering for Yadkin Center, beginning Fall 2018, when students can start their Electrical studies in Yadkin County.
Slate explained that Mechatronics takes the electronics, mechanical and robotics part of advanced manufacturing and teaches students how they tie together.
“Mechatronics students are highly skilled, high-tech trouble shooters. They need to be self-motivated individuals who are inquisitive and want to know how things work and like to work with their hands,” Slate said. “Companies also want workers who understand predictive maintenance, which is a key focus of Mechatronics. The field of study pays well – workers skilled in Mechatronics start at an average of $25 per hour.”
Joey Boles is the Lead Instructor of the Electrical Systems program at Surry.
“Graduates of the Electrical Systems program at Surry Community College qualify to do most anything in the electrical field such as electrician, industrial plant maintenance technician, electrical engineering assistant, renewable energy consultant or solar panel installer,” Boles said. “Both Electrical and Photovoltaic tracks take two years of study to complete, and with some of the courses being the same, students can get a double major by taking five more classes.”
The Electrical track includes basic wiring for residential, commercial and industry and covers all aspects of the wiring phases. Someone with this degree can get into any electrical system field. These classes cover programmable logic control and prepares students to become an industrial electrician or work in any type of business. The Photovoltaic (PV) or solar track covers more on the renewable energy side with wind turbines and micro hydropower systems.
With a looming electrician shortage in the United States, students studying to be electricians have a huge opportunity to be successful. The need for electricians is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to estimates by the United States Department of Labor, yet the number of young people obtaining electrical licenses is in drastic decline. Graduates of Surry Community College’s Electrical Systems program have a bright future with an abundant job market due to this demand. An electrician’s average pay is around $50,000 annually.
High school juniors and seniors can benefit by taking Mechatronics Engineering and Electrical Systems classes – tuition-free – through the Career & College Promise at the both the Dobson and Yadkin Center locations. Each program area offers a two-year degree, one-year diploma and certificate options.
If you have questions about the Mechatronics Engineering Technology program, contact Doug Slate at (336) 386-3302 or email@example.com. If you are inquiring about the Electrical Systems program, contact Joey Boles at (336) 386-3267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Registration for the summer and fall semesters is going on now at Surry Community College. The deadline to register for summer classes is May 18 with summer classes beginning May 21. Fall registration is open until Aug. 3, and fall classes begin Aug. 15. For more information, go to the registration page or call (336) 386-3264.
A crowd of more than 200 economic developers, educators and business leaders gathered at Grandover Conference Center today for the unveiling of a Triad talent alignment strategy that seeks to develop the region’s workforce to match industry needs over the next 10 years.
The strategy represents over a year’s worth of work to understand where the Triad’s workforce has been, where it’s at and where it’s going, in order to better train the Triad’s workforce.
Some of the highlights of the study showed the Triad, since 2007, saw a net decline of 60,000 jobs, but has added 50,000 jobs since the recession. The largest industry clusters in terms of jobs are health care, retail, entertainment and back office. The study also showed the region can expect labor shortages in industries such as health and biomedical, manufacturing and production, engineering and professional services.
And demand for health care professionals is expected to be the strongest through 2026, with an expected 15,000 new jobs in the field during that time.
Penny Whiteheart, executive vice president of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, addressed the crowd, rolling out a six-goal strategy developed in conjunction with the project’s steering committee and consulting firm Jones Lang Lasalle.
Whiteheart said the six goals will be implemented over a decade, but today’s rollout focused on three broad goals to be implemented within the next year and a half.
Goal one will be to ensure employer engagement in the Triad is coordinated, consistent and results-oriented. To achieve this goal, Whiteheart said, three sector councils are expected to be established by the end of 2019 to target specific industries. Those partnerships, which will consist of industry leaders in the region, will focus on collaborating with institutions to better align workforce development to their needs.
Whiteheart told Triad Business Journal the first two industry councils will likely focus on the health care and advanced manufacturing industries, but how quickly industry leaders are able to move forward on the partnerships will ultimately determine which industries will first establish their own councils.
The end goal is to have four industry councils established, which will likely entail an individual focus on four broad industries driving growth in the region: health care; manufacturing and advanced manufacturing; transportation and logistics; professional services and back office.
Goal two of the three goals to be implemented over the next year and a half will be re-engaging populations within the workforce that are either unemployed or underemployed. To accomplish this goal requires a strategic communication campaign to increase awareness of the opportunities for career advancement and to highlight and promote the value of post-secondary training and education for the workforce.
And goal three will be increasing awareness of the Triad as an attractive place to live, work and play. The crux of accomplishing this goal is developing a talent attraction and retention website that will serve as a central landing point to connect the region’s talent to employment opportunities. This type of website, Whiteheart said, is already being utilized in the Triangle and Charlotte area, and, in addition to attracting talent, can also serve as a marketing tool to land companies interested in moving into the region.
Triad Business Journal has previously reported the six goals developed from the workforce study, but up until now has not had specifics on a timeline of how and when the goals will be implemented. Click here for the full list of goals.
Other speakers at the event included PTP President Stan Kelly, HAECO Americas CEO Richard Kendall, Piedmont Triad Regional Council Executive Director Matthew Dolge and Action Greensboro Executive Director Cecelia Thompson.
Chris Chung, CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, was also in attendance. Chung spoke with TBJ about the role EDPNC plays in helping the Triad land projects by directing companies that are looking to expand to the Triad area. Chung noted that though the Triad’s workforce and lower business costs keep the region competitive, it often suffers from lack of out-of-state name recognition compared to areas such as Charlotte and Triangle.
But, as noted by PTP President Stan Kelly in front of the crowd of attendees, the Triad and central North Carolina in general have the assets to be the next logical place of growth for the state.
“If we do a better job of telling our story, our workforce numbers will grow,” Kelly said.
In addition to the PTP and Action Greensboro, the project was funded by economic development agencies across the Triad, including the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, Winston-Salem Business Inc., the High Point Economic Development Corp. and others.
BizFest exhibitors from businesses and nonprofits across Surry County attend a seminar on collaboration at The Liberty in Elkin Thursday afternoon.
Amanda Pearce and Marie Palacious present a seminar on “Competing or Collaborating” during the kick-off for BizFest Thursday afternoon.
BizFest exhibitors from businesses and nonprofits across Surry County attend a seminar on collaboration at The Liberty in Elkin Thursday afternoon.
The seventh-annual BizFest will be held at The Liberty in Elkin on Thursday from noon to 6 p.m.
The event alternates between Mount Airy and Elkin, said Todd Tucker, president of Surry County Economic Development Partnership (SCEDP), which puts on the exhibition. The Yadkin Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce are co-sponsors
“BizFest is a business expo that features the business in Surry County, and focuses primarily on the small business,” said Tucker. “It gives them a chance to show off their products and services. It’s mainly a business-to-business event, but the public is always welcome to attend.
“It’s a good way for people to become aware of the companies we have here, so they can buy their products, use their services and shop local. We want to keep all that money here.”
Starting off the event is a kick‐off celebration from noon to 1:30 p.m. WorkForce Unlimited and the Small Business Center at Surry Community College will present Amanda Pearce and Marie Palacious with Funding for Good to facilitate an interactive session on successful partnerships, titled, “Competing or Collaborating? Keeping the Community in Mind and Dollars in Hand.”
“Our goal will be to explore ways to grow your business through innovative partnerships across diverse business sectors. Many business owners struggle with finding new ways to grow their business, how to find needed services and how to engage partners to strengthen your work,” reads BizFest promotional materials.
The exhibition will feature 42 vendors representing Surry County businesses.
Duke Energy and the town of Elkin will host a Business After Hours event from 4 to 6 p.m. to wrap up BizFest. The exhibitor booths will remain open during this time to allow additional networking opportunities.
“The chamber is pleased to be a part of it,” said Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “BizFest is a great way to showcase our local business community. I invite everyone to come out on the 12th.”
The Liberty is located at 222 E. Main St. in downtown Elkin.
Surry Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Day on Friday brought in 350 students from area schools to get information about training, education and jobs in advanced manufacturing.
Middle school students arrived from Mount Airy and Elkin along with high schoolers from Mount Airy, North Surry, Forbush and Elkin.
“I promise you won’t have trouble finding a job if you have the skills,” said Doug Slate, mechatronics engineering lead instructor, to a group of Mount Airy Middle School students.
He then talked numbers, telling them that graduates of his two-year program who learn the necessary skills are qualified for jobs in Surry and Yadkin County with starting pay of $21 to $22 per hour. He said if they were willing to drive to Winston-Salem, they could make $32 an hour, but admitted that was the exception. Those jobs average $21-$24 an hour.
“That’s right out of school,” he said. “With excellent benefits.”
Slate went on to say that he knew of 30 open positions — but telling the students they might have to drive to Winston-Salem or Iredell County — and the college only graduated four people last year. “It’s been that way for several years,” he said. “Eighty percent or better have jobs before they walk across the stage to get their diploma.”
Slate made the case to the students that a two-year technical degree in his mechatronics program — which he defined as a combination of mechanics, electronics and robotics — was an alternative path to a four-year degree. “People with four-year degrees are calling me and saying they want to come back and take my program.”
Martha Holt, a North Surry senior, said she was most interested in seeing the larger robots. She has worked with one of the smaller models in high school and wants to see how it applies to the real world. Martha said she was interested in bio-medical engineering, specifically making medical devices.
Jordan Crowson, a mechatronics instructor, was showing students how the largest of Surry’s four robots works. The big yellow machine is capable of lifting several thousand pounds, according to Crowson.
“We’re the only college in the state that has a set-up like this,” he told the students.
“Students learn to program the robots,” he said. “But the simulation software is like a video game. This is real.”
Russell Jones, Electronics Engineering lead instructor, told Mount Airy Middle School students, “If it runs on electricity, our students can fix it.”
He then introduced his department’s robot to the students. His name is Baxter, and unlike the mechatronics robots, Baxter has a face. Above the arms that perform tasks, Baxter has a computer screen where the head would be on a human. Jones showed the kids how to pull up a menu and use it to program Baxter. But there are also eyes and eyebrows on the screen, and they are quite expressive.
As the kids took turns operating Baxter, Jones warned them to step back when he was ready to go. “It hurts when he slaps you up side of the head,” Jones told the students.
“He won’t complain. He doesn’t need to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t want a smoke. But sometimes, he doesn’t get it right,” Jones explained Baxter’s performance to the kids. And on those occasions when Baxter didn’t get it right, his eyes would turn down into a sad, pouty face.
“Any kind of metal, machinists had something to do with it,” Corey Easter, Computer-Integrated Machining lead instructor, said. “We drive the economy,” and added that Ingersol-Rand’s whole business is machining.
On the other side of the campus in the Shelton-Badgett Center for Viticulture and Enology, several area companies involved in advanced manufacturing had set up booths to talk to the students.
Ingersoll-Rand, which has a facility in Mocksville, was one of them. Stacy West said he wanted to show students there were other options for a good career and get them to think about technical careers. He said his company is growing, and they are looking for new hires in machining and maintenance. They are beginning a $30 million project converting to robotics to give them the precision they are looking for, and they will need trained people.
Jake Speaks, spokesperson for Dynamic Machining and Manufacturing in King, said “I want to spread our name to some of these students, both to the college students when they come out of school, and to the younger kids when they come along several years from now.”
Aaron Morse and Michael Cummings, both electronics students who graduate in May, came out of the Shelton-Badgett Center, feeling positive.
“I had some good conversations,” said Morse.
When asked if he had received any job offers, Cummings smiled and said, “Not yet.”
A dozen local students are part of what local officials hope is a big step toward attracting high-tech business to Surry County, and maybe keeping those students at home when they enter the workforce full time. The 12 are serving internships in local businesses in what school officials are calling the Next Generation Career Academy.
The program aims to help students get experience and training for jobs in advance manufacturing and the so-called STEM-related fields. STEM refers to courses of study in science, technology, engineering and math.
In addition to practical work experience, the students are earning a stipend from the program, funded by a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation.
The program had its genesis in September, during a discussion by Dr. Travis Reeves, county school superintendent, Dr. David Shockley, president of Surry Community College, and career coach Crystal Folger-Hawks during that month’s Business and Education Economic Partnership meeting.
”Students will complete internships or apprenticeships designed with local business and industry partners that can and will lead to employment,” the school system said in designing its grant application, according to Surry County Schools spokesperson Sonia Dickerson.
“Students will earn industry-related career credentials such as Career Readiness Certification, OSHA Certification, Lean Six Sigma Certification, and certificates from Surry Community College in content areas such as welding, construction, nursing, computer-integrated machining, and electronics,” the grant application stated.
During that September meeting, Folger-Hawks presented a timeline of events that showed the schools establishing business and economic partnerships with agencies in the community; completing an annual analysis of the business and economic development and education partnership; identifying specific industry-recognized certifications that students could earn, such as welding certification, OSHA certification, and career readiness; and by January, identifying specified work-based learning opportunities in industry sites and identifying potential student candidates and conduct intern training.
“The Next Generation Career Academy is right on schedule,” Folger-Hawks said recently in a kickoff meeting with the first group of interns. “Welcome to your first three-day intern training.”
Folger-Hawks, Reeves, and Shockley greeted the 12 students who met the criteria for the internship program. During the training provided by Surry Community College and Surry County Schools, the interns engaged in discussions and activities focused on their work ethic, employer expectations, communication skills, problem-solving, team-building, time management, lean process improvement, and even table manners.
At the end of the week the interns had an opportunity to meet their new employer/mentor at a luncheon before they started the internship on Monday, Jan. 29.
Prior to the students going out to the locations, Folger-Hawks met individually with businesses, toured their facilities, and designed internship opportunities. She matched students to specific careers in the businesses that are participating in the Next Generation Career Academy.
Those businesses include: AES Inc., Chatham Nursing and Rehabilitation, Insteel Industries, Johnson Granite, Leonard Buildings & Truck Accessories, Nester Hosiery, Smith-Rowe, SouthData and Surry Telephone Membership Corporation.
Golden Leaf funds will pay stipends directly to students for their work-based learning internships, as well as funding the costs of textbooks in community college and/or high school courses, and funding transportation costs for students. Several businesses are also paying students for their internship experience.
After one day of his internship program, Noah Reece texted this message to Folger-Hawks, “I’m telling you what I did today I wouldn’t trade for anything else. It was a blast, I love what I did, and hopefully, it will be what I continue to do. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I am really hoping they will take me full time. I have decided just on the first day this is what I want to do. I can’t thank you enough.”
“We got off to a great start with our Next Generation Career Academy extended internship program, and now Surry County Schools is in the position to work with local businesses to develop an apprenticeship program,” said Folger-Hawks.
“It’s exciting to know that we are giving students real-world work skills and they are immediately employable.”
Facing formidable competition from the likes of a mansion, a warship and the natural wonders of mountains and seashore, Mount Airy Main Street prevailed as North Carolina’s number one attraction in a USA Today 10 Best Contest that was released at noon on Friday.
“This is so exciting for businesses in town and for the city,” said Jessica Roberts, executive director of the Mount Airy Tourism Development Authority (TDA). “We are very proud to be named number one in North Carolina, and this media exposure will be wonderful for the city of Mount Airy.”
“It was a real grassroots effort to get the word out locally and to our fans around the world; fans of Mount Airy and fans of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’,” said Roberts of her agency’s campaign to earn votes for Mount Airy downtown.
Also named on the 10 Best list were #2 — Battleship North Carolina, Wilmington, #3 — Biltmore Estate, Asheville, #4 — Sarah P. Duke Gardens, Durham, #5 — Grandfather Mountain, #6 — Blue Ridge Parkway, #7 — International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, #8 — Cape Lookout National Seashore, #9 — Great Smoky Mountains National Park, #10 — Corolla Wild Horses, Corolla.
“I’m just tickled to death,” said Travis Frye, programs and events director for the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce. “I was kind of in shock. We were up against Biltmore and all those others.”
Frye added that coming out ahead of those heavy-hitting attractions is a reflection of the spirit of the local community.
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always a sure thing. During the final weeks of voting in the reader’s choice contest, Mount Airy had dropped down into third place, temporarily bested by Biltmore and some of the other contenders as voting progressed.
“We watched what they were doing, and then we did more of it,” Roberts explained how she and her team took advantage of that time while lagging behind the frontrunners. “We sent out texts, emails, posts on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. We asked the Chamber to help, talked to different people and businesses locally so they were all doing what we were doing.”
This is not Mount Airy’s first time at the rodeo of public opinion. Several years ago, the city was one of six finalists competing for the title of Friendliest City in America. The results of that competition did not turn out so well for Mayberry, with Walla Walla, Washington, ultimately named the winner. But the experience did not go to waste.
“When we were nominated for ‘friendliest city,’ right away we put together a plan for media exposure to let the media know we were in the running,” said Roberts. That plan has been honed and sharpened over the years in subsequent campaigns, and on Friday it paid off.
“I think being named number one in the category is huge exposure for us,” said Roberts. “We could never pay for this kind of publicity.”
“We try to get people to come, and then we try to get them to stay longer and spend more money,” said Roberts of the efforts of the TDA. “Anything a tourist touches while they are here helps the local economy.”
“This is an opportunity for us to come together as a community,” said Frye of the latest accolade bestowed on Mount Airy by a national publication.“People still long for that small-town feel,” he summed up. “And we’ve got that.”
Stan Jewell remembers the days when consumers viewed socks as a mere afterthought — an item haphazardly tossed in the shopping cart on the way to a more important purchase.
“It was ‘do I need my white socks or my dress socks?’” said Jewell, the newly minted CEO of Mount Airy-based Renfro Corp.
But today, buyers see socks as a fashion statement, he said. And they’re willing to spend more than just a few bucks for the fancy footwear emblazoned with elaborate graphics, designs and patterns. Hiker friendly socks that provide blister protection and resist odor-causing bacterial buildup? That’ll be $22.50. A pair of cashmere-merino wool blend socks with a classic ribbed pattern? $58, please. Compare those prices to a six-pack of men’s big and tall crew socks from Walmart for $7.47.
Indeed, there is a movement afoot to provide consumers with socks featuring various fashion designs or high-tech fabrics that promise better comfort or performance for a specific activity like running. That trend, in turn, has provided fertile ground for startups focused on selling socks marketed with words like “fun,” “novelty” and “premium.” The trend has forced sock manufacturers like Renfro Corp. — whose strength has been their ability to produce mass quantities of socks in traditional channels such as department stores — to look at their sales strategies with fresh eyes and add specialty niche socks to generate revenue and stay competitive.
That’s been a top priority for Jewell, who this summer took the reins at Renfro, a global manufacturer of private label legwear products. Jewell is focused on growing market share of brands like New York City-based HotSox, which features sock collections featuring everything from Van Gogh paintings to Scottie dogs. Some manufacturers, like Mount Airy-based Nester Hosiery, are hiring new executives to boost sales for premium sock lines. Others, such as ProFeet in Burlington, have launched new hosiery to appeal to consumers who love the outdoors. Some are even partnering with sock startups to provide production capabilities and earn a cut of the profits.
Socks are crowded segment
The fight for sock market share is taking place clear across the Triad, which is home to a crowded field of sock producers. Take, for example, the small city of Mount Airy, with just over 10,000 people. Mount Airy is home to Nester Hosiery, a high-end sock maker in the premium performance sock category, and has also long hosted a sock operation for Winston-Salem-based Hanesbrands. Look farther south to find Greensboro-based Kayser Roth, a hosiery manufacturer that operates plants in Burlington and Asheboro. And manufacturer Harriss & Covington, a producer of SmartWool socks, is based in High Point.
Sock companies here and across the country are pursuing the premium socks trend to help them generate revenue in an industry hard-hit by the shift to overseas manufacturing.
“We are trying to balance our portfolio a little bit more because the basic category of light gray athletic socks is shrinking,” Jewell said of Renfro, which makes socks for the likes of Fruit of the Loom and Walmart.
The company, which employs about 500 of its 4,500-person workforce at the company’s Mount Airy headquarters and distribution center, isn’t willing to depend solely on volume production alone.
“We’re still the biggest player in that market, but we are trying to grow our more interesting segments of the business in the performance and fashion category faster,” Jewell said.
Consumer tastes drive demand
The good news is that there is still plenty of money to be had: The global socks market was valued at $42 billion in 2016, and it is expected to expand at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.7 percent from 2017 to 2025, according to Transparency Market Research of Albany, N.Y.
The companies able to sell lines of socks that can be differentiated will be the winners in the uber-competitive category.
“Now that you can charge more and get more for it, no longer is the low-cost manufacturer in control,” said Roger Beahm, a marketing professor at Wake Forest University. “Now, when someone is looking at a pair of socks, they are looking at what’s the value-added? What am I getting that I might not normally get in another pair and does it add value? Is it the decoration? Is it the sock itself? Or a technological ingredient that allows the sock to perform better? Does it better reflect my lifestyle? Does it help me escape? Those are values that are being delivered now.”
He added that socks are also seen as an “affordable luxury.”
“You can pay $16 for a pair of socks. While that’s expensive compared to what a commodity sock would be, it’s still not going to break your budget,” Beahm said.
Jewell’s ability to generate new revenue for the company through specialty socks will be imperative to the longevity of Renfro, which is owned by private equity firm Kelso and remains one of the largest manufacturers of private-label socks for retailers like Walmart, Target and Kohl’s.
Founded in 1921, the company derives about 50 percent of its annual revenue of $500 million from the traditional sock business. That’s down from a portfolio that previously relied almost entirely on the basic sock category, Jewell said. The remaining half of Renfro’s business comes from sports, outdoor and workwear performance socks and fashion, high-end socks, Jewell said.
Jewell said Renfro’s non-basic categories of performance socks, such as New Balance and Nike athletic socks, currently make up 20 percent of the company’s overall business while fashion socks, like Polo/ Ralph Lauren products, make up about 30 percent. He estimates that the fashion sock category will grow to about 35 percent over the next five years while performance socks will grow from 20 percent to 30 percent.
He said he sees plenty of potential for fashion-oriented socks, which are often bought by those who want to add some personality to one’s ensemble and express one’s interests and tastes.
“I don’t have to think of some new combination or style of pants or shirts,” Jewell said. “I can put a new pair of socks on that is pushing my fashion sense a little bit, but it’s not a big risk, it’s not a big expense.”
Other consumers want to make a deliberate statement, he said.
“Hey, I like pizza and beer so I’m going to have pizza and beer on my socks,” Jewell said. “I like Picasso, so I’m going to have Picasso on my socks.”
A display shows off Hot Sox, which are manufactured at Renfro.
Jewell plans to generate more money from fashion-oriented socks largely by enhancing the marketing of companies Renfro has bought over the past decade. In 2007, it bought New York City based HotSox, whose main sock customer is Ralph Lauren, followed by the acquisition of California-based K. Bell in 2010. In 2014, Renfro struck a license agreement with New Balance to design, manufacture and market new and existing lines of socks for the athletic apparel brand.
Jewell said Renfro is now working on an initiative to co-market specific socks with New Balance shoes.
“When we took over the New Balance license, there wasn’t traditionally very close cooperation between the sock manufacturer and the New Balance parent company,” Jewell said. “So we’ve worked really hard to build a stronger connection, and we have aligned our product categories directly to their shoe category, so that’s new. And we are designing socks to go specifically with footwear products they are designing.”
Renfro’s advantages: Scale, speed
Jewell isn’t worried about the sock startup competition. If anything, it helps Renfro, he said.
“We are learning a lot from watching those guys and seeing what’s really sticking,” he said. “That helps inform us on what our strategy should be and how we move forward.”
He added that Renfro has the ability to scale up quickly if there is a sudden spike in demand for specialty socks — something startups can’t do as easily.
“They are really going to have problems scaling up, either with capital issues or distribution,” he said.
That’s Renfro’s strength, Jewell said. It is equipped with a total of four factories, two of which are in the U.S. and are 100 percent owned by the company: A facility in Fort Payne, Ala., is used for mass production of basic socks while a facility in Cleveland, Tenn., focuses on specialty socks. The company is also part of joint ventures in both China and India that allow Renfro to mass produce socks for companies like Walmart.
“When Walmart comes to us and says ‘we want to focus on ‘Made in the USA,’ we have the ability to do that and do it in our own factories here,” Jewell said. “We don’t have to try to piece it together or outsource it.”
Meanwhile, small companies often outsource manufacturing operations, he said. While some of the firm’s larger competitors have factories, they are typically not in the U.S., Jewell said.
He added that Renfro has an advantage over sock startups because of its longstanding relationships with department stores.
“It’s very expensive to sell to department stores, when they want to charge back for unsold inventory and returns,” he said. “Small companies just can’t afford to do a lot of business with Macy’s or Dillard’s.”
Montana farmers and ranchers raise numerous high quality products.
2 minute 29 second YouTube video on the Nester Process
For sock maker Nester Hosiery in Mount Airy, North Carolina, the perfect pair of socks always starts with the main ingredient: Wool.
“There’s that phenomenon that happens with one person putting wool on their feet,” CEO Kelly Nester said. “When they do that, they go, ‘Gosh, what have I been missing?'”
According to Nester, wool is the sock ingredient that manages moisture and comfort while keeping the sock together and durable.
Nester Hosiery produces about 12,000 dozen pair of socks each week, or about 288,000 individual socks including their Farm to Feet line, which uses 100 percent American wool.
“It’s still a very young brand but that brand is principled on transparency in supply and it’s much more than the origin, it’s more of telling the story of manufacturing,” Nester said. “The companies involved from the American sheep industry rancher where they have grown the wool all the way through.”
Being a family-owned and operated business, the Nester family and employees treasure the relationship with America’s wool producers.
“It’s been one of the real treasures of the last five years of my career is getting to communicate with the sheep rancher,” Nester said. “The hard work that goes into farming is something that our whole company is familiar with and getting to communicate with some of those great personalities has been a lot of fun.”
America’s wool producers can take great pride in knowing that companies like Nester Hosiery depend on American wool so people everywhere can enjoy a perfect pair of socks.
This is another great example of why wool is one of the world’s most diverse natural fibers and how Montana woolgrowers are an important part of the fiber’s success story.
“The resources and assistance provided by the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, the City of Mount Airy, the Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and Surry Community College were essential to the success of our start up venture.”
Surry County Economic Development Partnership, Inc.
1218 State St.,
Mt. Airy NC 27030
PO BOX 7128
Surry County Economic Development Partnership Inc. 1218 State St., Mt. Airy NC 27030
PO BOX 7128