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Autoworkers Pick Up 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.

"I was bamboozled," said Kubiak, laid off from a computer-aided-design job in the business. "I came out of high school, and they said, 'We have a job for you that pays $17 an hour to start.' At 18, I made $40,000. My friends who went to college were jealous. But . . . now what?"

With the ranks of the unemployed reaching 14.5 million, President Obama said last month that the administration was developing a comprehensive program to retrain displaced workers.

He pledged that in the weeks to come he would lay out new ideas for job training and vocational education.

"The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country so that it's no longer just a time to look for a new job, but is also a time to prepare yourself for a better job," Obama said.

Currently, the United States offers two primary programs focused on helping dislocated adult workers find their footing: the Trade Adjustment Act and the Workforce Investment Act. Both are administered by state and local groups. Funding for these programs has amounted to about $2.4 billion annually, and stimulus funding adds nearly $2 billion more.

"Politicians are calling for retraining of the workforce every day, but as a share of GDP, the federal government spends less today on all training and employment activities than any time over the last 40 years," said Howard Rosen, executive director of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Coalition, a group that helps displaced workers get aid.

Nationally, employment in auto manufacturing has been in a long-term decline. In two years 354,000 jobs have been lost, with the industry shrinking to 646,000 workers from 1 million, according to Labor Department statistics. Many more jobs have been lost in companies that rely on the auto industry.

At a state unemployment office here, workers are led through retraining orientation meetings 14 at a time. At one recent gathering, six of the 14 newly unemployed once worked at auto or auto parts manufacturers.

Clint Herendeen, 28, a machinist, was laid off a year ago and says he wants to become an insurance adjuster. He's tried to find auto jobs but, like others, discovered that the listings are scarce and wages are falling.

"They want to offer me $10 an hour when I'd worked my way up to $23," he said, shaking his head and frowning. "I'm done with the shop life."

At the orientation meeting, the workers are given a test in English and math skills, as well as a list of "top jobs," or fields in which hiring may still be happening. Within a few weeks, they may sign up for $5,000 in classes each year at the government's expense.

Some aim for associate's degrees, taking two years for classes that could propel them back into the job market. But at the Macomb County unemployment office and elsewhere, the most popular curricula are more quick and practical.

Enrollments are high in classes for truck driving, an occupation that promises $16 an hour for a tractor-trailer driver. That's enough to get someone back on his feet, but it's also a far cry from the kind of new "green" economy job that many politicians have envisioned. Clerical and technical positions in health care and computer classes are also popular.

Steve Mazure, 50, has been a skilled machinist for 25 years, but the machines he has long operated to shape metal pieces are changing.

No longer are they the kind of lathes and mills that have knobs and cranks that are adjusted by hand and by feel. The new jobs require skills in machines that are programmed, not turned by hand.

So, funded by a program that covers workers displaced by foreign trade, Mazure is learning the new manufacturing equipment.

"It's all formulas, and then you push a button," he said, impressed by the accuracy and speed of the machines.

Mazure, who sports a long, graying beard, came to class last week looking like an old-school biker: a stars-and-stripes scarf on his head and a sleeveless black Harley-Davidson shirt. He has a wife and two grown daughters. He said he's been a "factory rat" all his life.

"I'm not computer-literate, so what I gotta do on the computer is rough on me," he said. "I've never had to save a file. I don't even know how to type. In high school, typing was for girls."

He said he's getting the hang of it nevertheless. But Mazure, who once made $28 an hour for his craft, expects to make far less even once he gets out. He also suspects the new work -- "pushing buttons" -- could be stiflingly dull.

"I'll be lucky if I make $16 when I get out of here," he said.

Studies of federal retraining programs have been sparse. But a recent large study of 12 state programs showed that while retrained workers often initially suffer a drop in earnings compared with those who are not retrained, those with new training typically earn more over time and get back to their pre-layoff income levels in about 2 1/2 years.

"Dislocated workers definitely take a big hit," initially, said Carolyn Heinrich, an economist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who led the study.

Moreover, while retraining may have benefits, many workers cannot afford the time or tuition for classes, particularly if they have children. Persinger, who is single, is pursuing a degree to become a registered nurse -- a choice he says would have been impossible if he had a family.

He hopes his annual wages as a nurse will reach close to his pay as a GM contractor, about $60,000. Even better, he figures, is the new sense of job security the health-care industry seems to promise.

"Of course, 20 years ago, people thought the auto industry would always be solid," he said. "But, for now, I feel good about it."

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