When Tyson Foods made the decision to close its chicken plant in Noel, Missouri, the implications for the rural town were devastating. With the plant employing over a quarter of the surrounding county, the closure meant a loss of livelihood for many residents. While some workers chose to leave immediately after hearing the news, others, like Jimi Lasiter, decided to stay behind in hopes of receiving their severance checks and assessing the impact of the closure on their community.
Lasiter, who had been with the plant for 11 years, recognized the challenges of finding another job in the area that would pay a comparable wage. The limited employment opportunities available in rural areas often require long commutes, making it difficult for workers to find higher-paying jobs elsewhere. This situation highlights the larger issue faced by rural communities in a slowing national labor market.
The State of the National Labor Market
While the overall hiring growth in the country remains strong, rural areas that lack ample employment opportunities are feeling the brunt of the challenges. The recently released data on job growth in October showed a decrease from the previous month, with the economy adding 150,000 jobs. Additionally, unemployment, though still at historic lows, saw a slight increase to 3.9%.
Recognizing the struggles faced by rural communities, President Joe Biden embarked on a tour of these areas, highlighting the need for agricultural and small-town infrastructure investments. The government’s efforts are aimed at spurring growth in places like Noel, where the closure of the Tyson plant has had a significant impact on the local economy.
Tyson and local officials have made efforts to support the workers affected by the plant closure. Job fairs have been organized to help laid-off employees find new employment opportunities, and the company has offered internal transfers to some of its other sites. Despite the closures, Tyson is also developing new plants in Virginia and Kentucky, providing job opportunities for hundreds of people.
Workers like Corina Chinchilla, who had been with the Noel plant for 13 years, applied for lateral moves to other Tyson facilities in the hopes of continuing their employment with the company. However, not all workers were willing or able to relocate. Ryan Coulter, for example, cited the long commute and increased expenses as barriers to accepting a job at a different Tyson plant. Instead, he found employment at a nearby grocery store.
This discrepancy in workers’ ability to find alternative employment highlights the stark differences in economic opportunities between rural and urban areas. While some urban areas experience job growth and attract new businesses, rural communities like Noel face uncertainty about their economic future.
Local officials in Noel are exploring various options to diversify the town’s economy and attract new industries. Mayor Terry Lance has been working with an economic development group to find ways to move beyond the town’s dependence on a single employer. Ideas such as opening an industrial training facility or tapping into the tourism potential of natural attractions have been proposed.
However, the transition to a diversified economy is not without its challenges. Some immigrant communities drawn to Noel during its poultry heyday may be leaving in search of better job prospects elsewhere. The loss of these communities’ unique art, craft, food, and music may impact the town’s potential as a tourist destination.
In light of the economic challenges, state and federal officials have urged Tyson to sell the vacant plant sites to avoid further economic fallout in the region. Antitrust laws have been cited as a concern, and efforts are being made to find new operators for the closed plants.
A Long Road to Recovery
Noel and many other rural communities face an uphill battle in the changing labor market. The closure of major employers like the Tyson plant sends shockwaves through these towns, leaving workers uncertain about their future. The efforts of local and federal officials to support these communities are necessary, but the recovery process will likely be a slow and challenging one.
With the changing dynamics of the labor market, it is crucial to address the unique needs of rural communities and provide them with opportunities for sustainable economic growth. By investing in infrastructure, encouraging job creation, and offering support to workers affected by plant closures, we can begin to bridge the gap between rural and urban areas and foster a more equitable labor market for all.