Leaving high school in 1992 there was still the feeling that even if you weren’t cut out for four, six, or ten more years of academia you could still find a job. Not just a job, but something that could sustain you. Then maybe even sustain you and your significant other. Eventually, you could even support your significant other and a couple little ones. Sure, it wouldn’t necessarily be the dream job. But it’d be an honest wage, and you could set back a little here and there for those rainy days. Maybe even the not-so rainy days when you’d want to take a trip or buy a decent vehicle(or support a vinyl habit.)
Point is, there was a time in America when those of us who just wanted to work a factory job and then chase our dreams outside of that building’s four walls, was feasible. If you wanted to hit a university on the way to adulthood for a paper to hang on your cubicle or office wall that was okay, too. There was work for us all. Opportunities were there if you wanted to pay the toll, whether that toll was tuition and room and board, or punching a clock on the wall of some factory in the Midwest. College equaled a more lucrative career; yearly bonuses, corporate cars, and a seat at the table. But it certainly didn’t mean everyone else punching buttons on CNC machines, driving fork lifts, and genuinely putting their literal backs into it weren’t worthy of a savings account and road trips to happier times on the weekends.
Those times have been dwindling for some time now. Manufacturing jobs are being uprooted and sent to other countries and provinces of the mainland where pay is far less and regulations are even lesser. Manual labor is being replaced by robotics. Data entry and customer service sent overseas. Genuine innovation has become stifled by in-fighting and bottom dollar tactics. As those in power taste the sweet nectar of over-flowing bank accounts and rising stock prices the working stiffs are seeing opportunities for gainful employment being pulled out from underneath them like some sick parlor trick.
My dad worked at the same printing company for 50 years. In the same department, doing the same job. He went through times of overwhelming overtime, and other times of thinning work to where he only worked three days out of the week. But he stuck it out. What was he going to do? He’d been working there since he was 17-years old. Starting over seemed impossible. He’d locked in to that employment groove. Jumping off the carousel 20 years in seemed like a financial risk he couldn’t take. He had a wife and two sons to support and keep a roof over. Eventually that ship would right itself and the course would be reset. By the time he retired things were getting to the point of no return. Printing words and pictures with ink on paper has become an almost archaic form of information. For him, he got out just at the nick of time. 50 years is a good run at the same place.
For me, I’ve been working in the same medical industry since I was 19. Starting at one orthopedic company, then jumping ship to another one 6 years later. I just celebrated my 20th anniversary last month, and by today’s standards that’s a hell of a run. In those 20 years we’ve had a few layoffs. Well, more like permanent letting gos, if you will. Layoff is a much more PC, open-ended way of saying “Thanks, but we’re breaking up. It’s us, not you.” These things happen. That’s the gamble you make working in manufacturing. You’re the golden boy until you ain’t. People aren’t into what you’re selling, or the crowd is a little too thick then the herd needs thinned. It’s tough calls that companies have to make in order to keep that ship afloat in order to make product for another day. It’s rough seeing people you’ve worked with for years having to take the sad walk up front in order to tell them they’re no longer needed. I’ve seen it two times since 2013 and it’s stomach-churning and painful. You tell yourself “They’re doing this as a necessity in order to save all of these other jobs and the facility.” That’s how you cope with it when you haven’t taken that walk to HR for your severance package.
It seems this is going to happen again. While I was on vacation, at home with my son watching horror movies and working in the yard, a doom-and-gloom meeting transpired in the cafeteria where employees eat leftovers, PB&Js, and frozen entrees on break. It seems inventory is too high, people aren’t having back surgery like they used to, and so the company is getting rid of 30 machines on the shop floor over the course of the next two years. 30 machines. These aren’t little machines. These are million dollar behemoths the size of a Chevy Suburban that you feed 12ft bars of titanium, cobalt chrome, and stainless steel bars of metal into in order to make the nuts, bolts, and rods that go into the back of someone in need of pain relief. With the 30 machines leaving, there will most certainly be employees being “laid off”(It’s not you, it’s us.) How many? Well the guy in the button-up shirt, tie, and Dockers couldn’t say, just that it will happen in the next few weeks(Happy Holiday, motherfuckers.)
The dice were rolled. Snake eyes.
Though these machines leaving aren’t being sent to pasture(unlike those guys and gals that ran those machines.) They, along with the work they were used for, are being sent to other countries and provinces of the mainland. Cheaper labor costs, less regulations, low-to-zero tax rates, etc, etc. So what this tells me is that with the ship taking on water, the powers that be have decided to let the water continue to flow, copter the valuables off, and leave the rest of us with some Saltines and expired sardines and wait for the big corporate sleep.
Where does this leave us? It leaves us with a bunch of employees left to keep punching the clock for the next few weeks with a big flaming rock in their gut. We continue to make the nuts, bolts, and rods that nobody wants until someone comes calling, wanting to walk us up to HR for that severance and a kick in the pants as we walk out for the last time. There are plans for a new way of running things in the building. Different products, different processes, and different faces telling us to do it. But with less people. How many less? Stay tuned. For now, put on a happy face and continue as if you weren’t told you had terminal cancer with a few weeks to possibly live.
I was worried, then mad, then worried some more, and then really pissed. But I’ve come to some kind of namaste, meditative peace with it all. If I take the long walk and I’m given the packet of info and the kick in the pants out the door I’ll deal. There is a consolation prize of money. Lots of places wouldn’t even do that. Most just arrive at work to find chains on the door with an industrial padlock and that’s it.
But it still stings to think of putting in 20 years in one place, doing my job right and as I’ve been told, only to have it end because some folks making well over six figures decided to roll the dice on manufacturing practices which then causes us to be no longer profitable. They’ll still get a 5 or 6 figure bonus, while I get maybe a year’s worth of pay and a pat on the back and sent on my way. I’ve got retirement money. More than most would have at my age. Like I said, I’ll survive. But I know a lot of folks that are going to be really hurt by this. I feel for them.
I keep telling my kids to find something they love now and go for it. Don’t waste time or their money on going to college unless they know what they want to do with that extremely expensive investment. Trade classes, technology classes, art classes. Find something that inspires you, whether it’s lucrative or not. Just find something that inspires and sustains both your wallet and your spirit.
I know, that’s some heavy shit to lay on a teen’s head and heart but at this point not even a college degree promises gainful employment. Might as well just do something you love and figure the rest out later. The days of the working stiff are sadly dwindling. A job for a paycheck to support a family are becoming a thing of the past. Best to focus on some sort of happiness while you’re making that meager living. Feed your mind and heart, as well as your stomach. There’s jobs, sure(or so I’m being told by guys in suits on capital hill with free insurance.) But not even $15 an hour will support more than a single person in a single room apt on a steady diet of ramen, off-brand soda, and the smallest Direct TV package. When I’m told by those folks running for office they’ll bring manufacturing back to the states I know that’s a load of nothing. You can’t bring manufacturing back, not when the bottom line is based on inflated bonuses and stockholders. Unless they’re referring to the manufacturing of grilled steaks at Texas Roadhouse, or grocery bags at Meijer.
I don’t have an answer for the loss of good, honest jobs that deliver a living wage to folks that didn’t have a college stipend. This is just a eulogy for those jobs that are going by the way side. God bless you if you’ve found your calling and it sustains you. And God bless those that are struggling because their job was sent to China, Mexico, or Costa Rica. I’m happy for the former, and I feel for the latter.
God bless the working stiff.