Autoworkers Pick Up New Skills But Downshift to Lower Pay

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

WARREN, Mich. -- Big, burly and a "car guy" since high school, Tom Persinger worked for years at General Motors. Now he's a nurse's aide.

For about $12 an hour, he makes home visits to geriatric patients addled by dementia. He gets them fed or showered or moved from wheelchair to bed.

While he likes "taking care of people instead of fenders," Persinger says, it has been a jarring transition. He struggled at first to find another auto job, then took an introductory nursing class and now is adjusting to his circumstances: Persinger, 39, lives in his mother's basement.

"I've been humbled quite a bit," he said.

As the auto industry in America, which once employed more than 1 million people, continues to shrink rapidly, hordes of workers are struggling to acquire new skills, find new occupations and live on less than they made during the better times of U.S. manufacturing.

Many economists view the recession as a correction that, while difficult in the short run, will improve the economy by redirecting workers and investments into more profitable industries. But for workers cramming into community colleges around the country to retrain themselves, the path forward is far from clear.

Even with unemployment pay and tuition assistance, these midlife students often seek the shortest but perhaps not the best path to a new job. Many aim for quick certificates to become a nursing aide, a trucker or a computer networking technician.

"What we're seeing is the death of the conventional middle-class life and an increase in the population of working poor," said Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College, where Persinger attends.

Enrollment at the college in this Detroit suburb has climbed 11 percent in three years, and similar recession-inspired jumps have been reported at community colleges across the country. But even after workers sacrifice time and tuition for new skills, many find that their earning prospects have been reduced, at least initially, because they must start over in a new field.

A machinist who is spending $4,500 for a course to learn automated manufacturing said that even if he gets a job, it will probably pay about $16 an hour, a third less than he made before.

An executive secretary on layoff from an auto supply firm said that when she finishes her nursing associate's degree, she'll be making 20 percent less than she once did.

And for many, there is an acute sense of regret. Like many of the workers here, Clyde Kubiak, 33, is rueful about the choice he made years ago.

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