Two decades ago, manufacturing accounted for more than one in five Ohio jobs. Since then, the share of factory jobs in the state has shrunk by almost half. Meanwhile, per-capita incomes have not increased since 2007, when adjusted for inflation, and wages have slipped further below the national average. Overall, more than 100,000 jobs have vanished in the state in the past decade.
“Ohio did not bounce out of the 2000 recession” before the next one hit, said Mark E. Schweitzer, director of research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.
The consequence for many workers has been a prolonged period of high anxiety.
Nate Modie, 29, says he has been laid off half a dozen times. Most recently, he worked as a $22-an-hour welder, a trade he thought would offer a long career. But that proved to be wildly optimistic.
“It’s really terrible,” said Modie, who is training at Cuyahoga Community College to be a machinist qualified to craft medical devices. He hopes to find a position that pays $17 an hour. “It seems like once you get comfortable in a job, you’re back on the street.”
None of this has made him a big believer in politicians as agents of change. What he wants is someone who could re-create the job market enjoyed by his father, an iron worker for 32 years. But he is not sure who could do that.
“I think employers are very wary about hiring on,” he said. “It’s like they are scared to make an investment in human resources.”
Modie likes Obama, but he thinks the president has been ineffective in dealing with Republicans in Congress. “There’s just too much infighting,” he said.
Romney, meanwhile, leaves him uneasy. “He is too much of a businessman, too much of a suit,” Modie said. “From getting laid off so many times, it is usually people like him who are behind it.”
Others training for new health-industry jobs at Cuyahoga said they felt the same way. Jason Porter, 25, said the last good job he had was in 2009, when he was laid off from a $14-an-hour job in a diesel repair shop. Since then, he has worked doing home improvement with friends, then as a handyman for a small chain of thrift stores. “It was $11 an hour. No benefits. No nothing,” he said.
Signs of change
Workers may have their doubts about how they will ultimately benefit, but the recent growth of Ohio’s economy is evident along Euclid Avenue on this city’s East Side. Not long ago, this street was strewn with abandoned warehouses and other hulking relics evocative of the city’s proud industrial history and its long economic fall. Now, it is being resurrected as a thriving biomedical corridor.
Cleveland HeartLab made its name by developing a blood test that identifies the large pool of people at risk for heart attacks or strokes despite having normal cholesterol levels and blood pressure. The test, which tracks biomarkers for cardiovascular inflammation, has been a huge hit, allowing the company to expand from eight to 110 workers in just over two years.
The so-called health-tech corridor has attracted nearly $4 billion in investment in the past decade, including the huge Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center, which is nearing completion on the city’s once-forlorn lakefront.
“That doesn’t happen in Cleveland,” said Jake Orville, the company’s president and chief executive.
HeartLab’s explosive growth has led to the hiring of dozens of technicians and salespeople. It also has leased a 30,000-square-foot building and is, Orville boasts, the largest overnight and early morning delivery site in the city for UPS and FedEx.
“The best thing that ever happened to the city of Cleveland was this recent recession/depression,” said Fred Geis, a developer who built HeartLab’s headquarters. “We’re not a steel industry place anymore, and, finally, we were able to rip the rearview mirror off.”
That has forced workers to remake themselves for an evolving economy. At NewBridge, a nonprofit that offers free vocational training for displaced workers and people trying to break into the workforce, the focus is on producing health-industry workers. The program is turning out a steady stream of pharmacy technicians and phlebotomists, the vast majority of whom are landing jobs right after graduation.
“What I think is occurring in the economy is change,” said Erin Pierce, 26, a recent NewBridge graduate who works at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. “And you have to prepare yourself for it.”