Globalization brings a world of hurt to one corner of North Carolina
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
HICKORY, N.C. -- The expansion of global trade may enrich the United States, as economists say, but it has overwhelmed this manufacturing area beside the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The region has lost more of its jobs to international competition than just about anywhere else in the nation, according to federal trade-assistance statistics, as textile mills have closed, furniture factories have dwindled and even the fiber-optic plants have undergone mass layoffs. The unemployment rate is one of the highest in the nation -- about 15 percent.
"Our stitching was perfection," said Geraldine Ritch, 62, whose $15 an hour job sewing leather in a furniture factory was cut last year. "So I never thought we'd lose our jobs to China. But we did. We did.
"Now what is everyone supposed to do?"
As the Obama administration defines its stance on foreign trade, it has been besieged by complaints about the legions in Hickory and elsewhere who have lost their jobs to overseas competition. The national unemployment rate surged to 10.2 percent in October, the highest level since 1983.
Officially, the remedy for these workers is Trade Adjustment Assistance, a long-standing federal retraining program that offers community-college tuition and extended unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of workers affected by foreign competition. Its budget has run about $1 billion annually.
But as interviews with a few dozen people here show, much of the damage to the affected workers is not so easily mended.
Many workers are forced to forgo the training because they cannot afford to live on unemployment benefits long enough to get the training certificate or a degree. The average unemployment check is roughly $300 a week, and many study without benefit of health insurance.
Ritch, for example, is enrolled in a class to learn how to work in a doctor's office, but she recently lost her home and her health insurance.
"I pray," she said.
Moreover, of those who manage to finish their retraining, a significant percentage do not find jobs. Of those who do, about half earn only a fraction of their former pay, a 2000 Government Accountability Office study found.
Ken Austin, 55, has twice lost jobs to foreign competition, one in textiles and one at a furniture company. Now he is enrolled in a two-year program that will teach him how to install heating and air-conditioning systems. When he finishes, he hopes to find a job earning about $25,000, or about two-thirds what he made driving a forklift at a furniture company.