Laid-Off Factory Workers Find Jobs are Drying Up for Good by Clare Ansberry,
The Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2003, Pg. A1

[This is an abridged version of the Wall Street Journal article]

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 disolves.

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 build in the past three years to Mexico and East Asia.

"For people who work with their hands, there isn't going to be much out there for them for long," says Brad Karenbauer.

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."

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 build 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.

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.

He'd prefer to 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.

"I just wonder where things are going. That trade of working with your hands is just about gone now." {said Brad Karenbauer]

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