Unilever workers avoid layoffs, spend the summer in class at MCC instead

100 Years, 100 Stories

Employees of the Unilever plant in Independence learned fundamentals of pneumatics during a lab exercise at MCC-Business & Technology. (Photo by John Littleton)
Employees of the Unilever plant in Independence learned fundamentals of pneumatics during a lab exercise at MCC-Business & Technology. (Photo by John Littleton)

With the Unilever plant in Independence set to switch from “wet” to “dry” production — so long, Wish-Bone salad dressing; hello, Knorr gravy mixes — it looked like workers would be laid off this summer while the plant was overhauled.

Happily, however, thanks to state funding, 120 Unilever employees spent three months at MCC-Business & Technology, being trained in such areas as OSHA safety regulations, electrical, hydraulics, pneumatics, computer applications and forklift operations.

And they got their full paychecks while they were learning.

The Unilever employees started classes in early June and graduated from the program Aug. 21. They were in class eight hours a day, five days a week — credit-wise, about the equivalent of a year at college.

The future of their plant (on East 35th Street near Noland Road) had been in jeopardy, so it was good news when in the spring of 2014 Unilever announced it would not only stay in Independence but also invest $100 million to expand the production facility. More good news: 70 new full-time jobs.

But that still left the possibility of furloughs for the plant’s workers while the plant transitioned.

“That’s where the state training funds came in, retraining them rather than laying them off,” says Dr. Kevin Kelley, director of business and community development for MCC’s Institute for Workforce Innovation. The money came from the Missouri Community College Job Retention Training Program, administered by the state’s Department of Economic Development.

MCC officials had been working to secure the state funding for retraining for about a year, but the green light came just weeks before the Unilever employees would arrive on the Business & Technology campus.

“We basically put the program together and had it running in three weeks,” says MCC business consultant Stan Fields.

“They had a window — they needed these people to start training in June and needed them back in the plant by the beginning of September.”

In addition to the Wish-Bone line, which Unilever sold in 2013 (but continued producing for a while), the Independence plant also produced Hellmann’s salad dressings and Lipton tea products. It will continue the Lipton lines and add dry gravy, soup and sauce mixes under the Knorr and Lipton names.

After the successful summer program, MCC is hoping to see Unilever employees back in class one of these days.

“It’s been a great partnership,” Fields says, “and now we’re talking with them about other training we can do.”