Working 15-hour days, Scott Clark has been pulling in good money. He won't say exactly how much for fear that competitors will undercut him, but in the Richmond area, he said, a courier can make $800 a week for doing routes less time-consuming than his. That's more than his base pay at the factory, though his new job lacks any benefits and he has to pay for the van and the gas. Kathy Clark, meanwhile, got a full-time job this summer after two years of temp work. But they still have a lot of ground to make up. Had the plant stayed open, they would have been ready for retirement in just a few more years. Now, "I feel like I'm 18 years old again," said Kathy Clark, as she sat in a rocking chair in her living room, strands of light gray overtaking the dark brown of her short hair.
The Clarks know they have it better than many of their friends from the plant. They have frequent, impromptu reunions at Wal-Mart, where the talk inevitably turns to who has found work and who hasn't.
Chuck Moore plays with his son, Chase, 3, before bedtime. This past weekend, Moore accepted a job as a veterinary assistant for half what he had been making in his old job.
(Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Griff Witte was online to field questions and comments about this article.
Video: The Washington Post's Griff Witte discusses the shift in the workforce.
About This Series|
This is the first in an occasional series about the changes roiling the middle of the American workforce -- the disappearance of many jobs that pay near the national average of $17 per hour, with benefits such as health care and pensions. Other stories in the series will address how companies are moving work to temporary employees and people in other countries, and will look at the prospects for new types of jobs to take the place of those lost.
Raffael Toskes Sr. has, but only for $11 an hour. He rides around each day in an armored car, a gun strapped to his side. "I consider myself a middle-class person," said Toskes, who made $17 an hour at the plant. "But right now, I'm probably a lower-middle-class person."
Lawrence Provo has given up on trying to find a job. He was out of work for nearly two years after the plant closed. "That was probably the worst time in the world to become unemployed. Everybody was downsizing. Everybody was laying off," he said.
Provo and his wife cut back on expenses and sold their car, furniture and jewelry. They even sold their home, and moved in with Provo's mother-in-law. But it was not enough. They had come to rely on his factory wage, and now their debts spiraled into the tens of thousands. They declared bankruptcy, joining a record 1.6 million who filed last year.
Provo finally got a job through a temp agency for $8.50 an hour, less than $18,000 a year and a little more than a third of his pay at Viasystems. He was just getting his life back together when, in November last year, his heart failed him. "My doctor told me, 'You've got a choice: You can work or you can live,' " he said.
Robert Boyer retrained in computers after the plant closed. But tech companies told him they wanted five years' experience, not a certificate from a six-month course. So he works for $11.50 an hour at Home Depot, using the wisdom of four decades as plant electrician to help customers pick light bulbs for their remodeled kitchens.
Boyer turns angry at any suggestion that the jobs picture is not that bad. "When these guys get on the boob tube and say there's jobs out there, you just gotta go out there and get them, it makes me want to go out there and grab them by the throat and say, 'Where? Where are the jobs at?' "
Slipping Away at Circuit City
Ask Richmond's leaders, and they'll say the jobs are in infotech, biotech, nanotech and other kinds of tech yet to be conceived. "People have the impression that Richmond is a good-old-boy town. And we do have some old money here. But that money is going to build the new economy," said Robert J. Stolle, executive director of the Greater Richmond Technology Council. "Tech is the backbone of the Richmond economy."
One home-grown company seems to capture in its name Richmond's most deeply held ambitions: Circuit City. Born in 1949 to sell television sets to the masses, its existence attests to the enduring strength of the middle class. And all those sales of computers and video games have created a lot of jobs. With a local staff of 3,072, the chain is one of the Richmond area's largest employers.
But the work has a tendency to disappear. In the eight years after he moved to Richmond to take an offer at Circuit City, Chuck Moore lost his job in that company three times, proving that a white collar and a college degree are no protection from the forces that have shifted the ground under blue-collar workers like Clark.
At 35, Moore spent the first nine months of 2004 desperate for a job as he watched his grip on the middle class slipping away. His story complicates the idea that to be comfortable in America today, all you need is a little more education.
Moore's roots are solidly blue-collar: His father worked as an electrician for the same company for 40 years. His stepfather drove a truck. His brother went to work at the Georgia Pacific plant. His mother still manages the local Shoney's. No one in his family had ever graduated from college.
For nine years after his high school graduation, he and his wife, Terry, worked full time to pay for Chuck to complete his degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design. With a knack for electronics and an artistic eye, he wanted to animate movies or video games. "I thought that walking out that door with that degree in my hand, I wouldn't have to look. I would have people coming to me," Moore said.
But while Moore was in school -- designing animation by day, manning a hotel desk by night -- the technology had continued to improve and so had employers' capacity to hire artists anywhere on earth. A bachelor's degree might have been enough before; now you needed a master's or even a doctorate.