July 21, 2003 2:57 a.m. EDT
Laid-Off Factory Workers Find
Not Just the Slowdown: Structural Changes
Are Stranding Many With Basic Job Skills
By CLARE ANSBERRY
BUTLER, Pa. -- The two Karenbauer brothers and their cousin, Danny Mottern, have worked alongside each other for much of their lives. Working with their hands comes naturally to all three. As young boys they were dispatched to feed the cows and plant corn on their grandfather's 134-acre farm.
Later, they all ended up in the same Trinity Industries Inc. factory, building parts for railroad cars. Brad Karenbauer, 39 years old, was a tool and die man. Mr. Mottern, 42, was a welder. Jim Karenbauer, 60, ran the forge shop. They found challenge and satisfaction in their ability to take a rough piece of metal and fashion it into the door or roof of a sturdy railroad car that could whisk people, coal and grain across the country.
"I was making something. I had something to show for myself at the end of the day," says Mr. Mottern.
But Trinity started laying off workers in 2000 and a year ago, in a bid for efficiency, shut down the Butler factory where the Karenbauers and Mr. Mottern worked. After, the three men have began scrounging for work. They moved from job to job -- shoveling snow, stocking a Wal-Mart Supercenter -- but nothing has added up to the pay or fulfillment of their old jobs.
While hundreds of factories close in any given year, something historic and fundamentally different is occurring now. For manufacturing, this isn't a cyclical downturn. Most of these basic and low-skill factory jobs aren't liable to come back when the economy recovers or when excess capacity around the world dissolves.
Railroad cars, unlike buggy whips, are still needed, as are toys, appliances and shoes. But the task of making these goods is increasingly being assumed by more efficient machines and processes. Or they've been transferred to workers who earn less and live in another country. While these changes have been going on to a limited extent for years, the economic slowdown has greatly accelerated and broadened this historic shift. By some estimates, roughly 1.3 million manufacturing jobs have moved abroad since the beginning of 1992, the bulk in the past three years to Mexico and East Asia.
Other plants around Butler also have closed, including one that fabricated steel and another that made vinyl siding. Hundreds of manufacturing workers have been left without jobs and their options for similar work have narrowed significantly in this city of 15,000, an hour north of Pittsburgh.
"For people who work with their hands, there isn't going to be much out there for them for long," says Brad Karenbauer.
After he was laid off last summer, he couldn't keep up with the rent on his apartment. He moved with his girlfriend, Lisa Schnur, and their infant daughter into a trailer owned by Ms. Schnur's aunt.
Meanwhile, a landscaper gave Mr. Karenbauer odd jobs, mowing lawns and putting down mulch, paying him under the table. That lasted until the snow fell. He doesn't mind getting dirty or working outside and admits he's not comfortable behind a desk. "That's just not my cup of tea," he says. "Hands on is what I like to do. I like to work hard. Growing up, if there was work to do, you did it. After a while, you just got used to it."
Now he finds himself stranded in the labor pipeline along with a generation of assemblers, welders, and tool and die men who learned their trade on the job and know little of computer-driven machines and new age manufacturing techniques. In June, manufacturing cut 56,000 jobs, the 35th consecutive monthly decline and the longest string of layoffs in that industry since World War II.
"We're saving corporate jobs by moving production jobs to lower-cost areas," says Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist with the Manufacturers Alliance, a public policy and business research group in Arlington, Va.
The shift also means income for secretaries, maintenance workers, and counter people in lobby coffee shops and staff parking garages. Furthermore, off-loading much of the low-skill production work saves money and makes companies more competitive. That means they can focus on innovation and potentially create other jobs.
Stan Donnelly, whose Alexandria, Minn., company makes plastic parts for big equipment manufacturers, imports tools from China to save money. In the long run, bypassing U.S. toolmakers is a mistake, he believes. Those kinds of jobs helped create and sustain the middle class, and he's not sure displaced workers will learn new skills and become higher paid. "Look, we've got millions of people who have failed to get through high school. If their minds are not their salvation, what's wrong with letting their hands be their salvation?" asks Mr. Donnelly. "Over the last two centuries, America has developed a balanced society, with opportunities for a large cross section of people. We're gutting that."
In Brad and Jim Karenbauer's childhood home, work was part of the natural rhythm of the day, filling the space between school and supper and most daylight hours during weekends. If they weren't helping around their own house, they were dispatched to their grandparent's farm, as were Danny Mottern and other cousins. They plowed fields and stacked hay. Surrounded by John Deere tractors, they learned how to take machines apart and put them back together.
Their grandmother fried up homemade sausage in her iron skillet to welcome them back from the fields. Afterward, they relaxed under an oak tree, with a bottle of pop and, when older, a cold beer.
The Karenbauers' father worked in a small fabrication shop, welding steel for bridges and buildings. With six kids, money was tight, but they never felt poor. They had a half a cow in the freezer. "If you didn't have it, you didn't need it," says Brad Karenbauer. College wasn't an option. Even if they had the money, he wouldn't have gone: "I was not a school-oriented person," he says.
In their community, working with machines was nothing to be ashamed of and there were plenty of opportunities to make a comfortable living. Brad Karenbauer took three years of welding in high school and after graduation in 1981 worked 16-hour days for a brother-in-law who had a boiler-repair business. "It was a blast," he says. "My brother-in-law didn't believe in an eight-hour day. You went to a job and stayed until it was done. I was bringing home more money than I could spend."
Then as now, manufacturing paid more and had better benefits than many other jobs. In Butler County, population 174,000, about 20% of the work force is in manufacturing, but those jobs contribute 30% of the county payroll. Nationwide, manufacturing jobs averaged $54,000 in pay in 2000 -- 20% higher than the average of what all American workers earn, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.
One of the prized jobs in Butler County was building railroad cars, an industry with a storied past. A century ago, the flamboyant Diamond Jim Brady, who made a fortune selling railroad parts, and engineer John Hansen built the world's largest freight-car plant, half a mile long, in Butler, according to local historian Ralph Goldinger.
Inside, more than 1,110 welding machines melted steel pieces together, producing at its peak 27,000 railroad cars a year. At first it was called Standard Steel Car Co., but the company merged with Pullman Inc. of Chicago, to become the well-known Pullman-Standard Co., whose posh cars made comfortable cross-country travel a reality.
Civic-minded Pullman donated its eight-acre ballpark to Butler in the 1940s. The New York Yankees sometimes played exhibition games there, giving locals a chance to cheer Whitey Ford, Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. Streets were named after the company founders. Mr. Hansen built a mansion with seven fireplaces on West Pearl Street. It still stands today.
Jim Karenbauer started at Pullman in 1965, when he was 22 years old and fresh out of the Air Force. He worked in the storeroom, then transferred to the forge department because he could learn and earn more. Eventually, he became foreman, earning $32,000 a year when Pullman closed its doors in 1982.
Jobs were scarce, but he found one with the Butler Township zoning department, inspecting buildings and property. He quit after three years. "I couldn't take the politics," he says. He sold insurance for a while, walking up and down Butler's streets, knocking on doors.
Two years after Pullman closed, Trinity came in and started making replacement parts for railroad cars in the same factory. Jim Karenbauer got a call in 1987 asking him to run the plant's forge operation. "They got the old Pullman guys who knew how to run that stuff," he says. About six months later he brought home applications for his younger brother and cousin.
While Jim Karenbauer made the coupling rods that hook together railroad cars, Mr. Mottern welded chutes for coal and grain cars. Brad Karenbauer moved around the floor adjusting machines that were clogged or not working properly. He learned the tool and die trade, the craft of making the tools that form parts, from his supervisor. "He took a liking to me and taught me," Mr. Karenbauer says. That sort of informal teaching was invaluable to companies and workers who couldn't afford other education. And for generations, it sufficed.
A die, or mold, shapes a metal part much as a waffle iron shapes a waffle. Brad Karenbauer's job of maintaining them was critical and he was paid relatively well. At the time he was laid off last year, he earned $14.50 an hour.
For him, the challenge of figuring out how to fix problems was as rewarding as the pay. "I loved my job. I never did the same thing every day. I'd build a new die. Or fix the old one that died," he says. Co-workers voted him "employee of the month," which was noted on a sign outside the plant and acknowledged with a $150 gift certificate from Sears. "I bought a couch with that," he says.
Once he was invited to Trinity's headquarters in Dallas to explain his solution to a glitch that had been causing many pieces of a metal post to be scrapped. He figured out that the post was moving slightly when it was in the press, causing a wrinkle. He built a device to hold it firmly. His cousin, Mr. Mottern, came up with a design to replace a part that had been made by welding two pieces of metal together. That eliminated the welding, and helped the department make twice as many pieces of higher quality.
His employers gave him a framed certificate and a grainy video of his talk, which he still shows visitors. "All the bigwigs were down there," he says.
Trinity closed the Butler plant and in 2002 and one other, citing the slowdown in the rail industry. "We no longer needed to maintain all the facilities previously supporting our parts business," it said in a statement. The company, which has operations in Mexico, the Czech Republic and Romania, said the Butler work would be done at its plant in Texas.
"We'll never find a job like that," says Mr. Mottern. While working at the Trinity factory, he was able to buy 40 acres of land. He cleared a hilltop and built a tidy ranch house at the end of a long driveway, flanked by tiny evergreen saplings. A barn is filled with a half-dozen pieces of John Deere equipment, including a 1952 model he and his cousins rode on their grandparents' farm.
"I'm not going to lose this," he says. "I'm willing to work so I know someone out there is going to hire me. I always figured I could just go and work with my hands. It's all I know," says Mr. Mottern.
After Mr. Mottern was laid off last summer he worked for a landscaper. That winter he shoveled snow and ran errands for an elderly judge. Mr. Mottern doesn't want to leave Butler because his family and girlfriend are here.
He and Brad, his cousin, sometimes meet for a breakfast of eggs-over-easy and home fries at Eat'N'Park restaurant. They often discuss their growing fear that they are becoming obsolete. Both feel they are behind on computer technology, which is increasingly important in factories. Brad Karenbauer recently saw a John Deere tractor with a computerized panel in the engine. "It was way out of my league," he says.
Prospects for workers with their skills are dim. Pennsylvania has lost one out of 10 manufacturing jobs, or 90,300 jobs, in the past three years. Industrial cities such as Butler have been disproportionately hit by job loss. Earlier this year, unemployment in the county jumped to 7.3%, the highest level since 1994.
Moreover, even though inflation-adjusted output by manufacturers nationally is expected to grow 36% over the next decade, employment is expected to grow only 3%, or by 577,000 jobs, according to the Manufacturers Alliance. The bulk of the new jobs will be given to those with computer, mathematics and management skills, while production workers are expected to decline as a share of all manufacturing occupations.
The Butler Eagle carries some "help wanted" ads, but the skills and pay don't fit their levels. United Plate Glass Co., with 45 employees, plans to expand, but it can't afford these workers. "They have 10 to 12 years with a company and I can't afford the salary level they have reached," says President William Cully.
It's especially tough for midcareer workers with family responsibilities. Almost 40, Brad Karenbauer has three kids. Along with his 14-month-old, he is supporting a 17-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son. He passed over a job paying $6.50 an hour. Another paid $8 an hour, but involved industrial chemicals, which he thought would be dangerous. Mr. Karenbauer has a friend from Trinity who went to work for the township, making $13 an hour. "I'd take a job that makes that," he says.
So far, though, he hasn't found one. The $7,000 in his 401(k) is gone. He used it to buy a car and pay off debt. With his unemployment running out and in need of health insurance benefits, he finally took a job in April at Harmony Castings, a 60-person foundry that paid $8.85 an hour. He drove 45 minutes to get to the foundry and worked a midnight shift.
Standing in one spot eight hours a night, he took one aluminum part after another and grinded off burrs to smooth them. "To be honest with you, I'm not liking it at all," he said shortly after taking the job. "It's repetition and I hate repetition."
For challenge and additional cash, he buys broken weed eaters and lawn mowers at yard sales to repair and sell at a profit. He recently bought one for $15, put in a new spark plug and sold it to a friend -- for $15. "They were in the same predicament I'm in," he says.
His cousin, Mr. Mottern, lucked out and landed a job, also in April, working on a railroad track crew. It pays $12 an hour, a $1.30-an-hour pay cut from his old job at Trinity, but after a winter of shoveling snow and summers of planting trees by the highway, he is thrilled. The job also has the potential for benefits. "I'm going to go down and bust my rear end for them," he says.
Most of the available jobs have been at malls. Mr. Karenbauer's older brother, Jim, now works at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, which opened last year. "There's four or five of us here now," says Jim Karenbauer, referring to his former Trinity co-workers. He refinanced his house a few years ago to pay for his daughter's college, and lost a chunk of his retirement savings when the stock market sank, so he can't retire.
He'd prefer work in a forge department but couldn't find a job in one. At Wal-Mart he makes $6.25 an hour, half of what he earned at Trinity. He stocks shelves with VCRs and rings the cash register. He wheels television sets out to the parking lot on a dolly. "Lifting them into the car is the hard part," the 60-year-old says. "They get pretty heavy."
After a month at the casting foundry, Brad Karenbauer recently gave up his job. He couldn't juggle the night shift and taking care of his daughter, while his girlfriend worked. A landscaper put him to work mowing lawns and doing odd jobs for cash. The work will dry up again once winter arrives, so he's still looking.
He doesn't regret not going to college, or working with his hands. "I think I've done better than my father," he says. "I just wonder where things are going. That trade of working with your hands is just about gone now."
Write to Clare Ansberry at email@example.com
Updated July 21, 2003 2:57 a.m.
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