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Michigan residents seek new path to the middle class

GM’s Flint Assembly Plant is one of the few auto operations still up and running in Flint, Michigan. Now that most of the plants have been demolished, workers both young and old trying to figure out ways to enter or remain in the middle class. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the decade Sierra Chase graduated high school. She graduated in the 1980s. The text has been corrected.


The average manufacturing worker in the U.S. makes around $35 an hour,  according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released today. But some of the highest-paid manufacturing workers are about to retire. And a lot of those jobs won't ever be filled again. That's especially true in Flint, Mich., the cradle and arguably the grave of the country's industrialized labor movement. In a previous story we looked at the rise and slow-motion fall of Michigan's unions, and with them, the industrial middle class. So what's ahead to fill the void, now that the center of gravity has shifted?   

Here’s something that used to be true if you grew up in Flint, Mich. Unionized factories -- “shops,” as you’d call them, because you’re a local -- were everywhere. Buick City, Chevy in the Hole. Fisher Body. And so you’d use these shops as landmarks, to navigate your way around town.

“Take a left at the shop and there’s a drug store on the right. Stuff like that,” explains Sierra Chase.

Growing up in Flint, practically everyone Chase knew worked at a union shop. It was The Path: high school straight into the factory, where you could make a decent enough living to raise a family. Meaning, union shops didn’t just help you find your way around town. They helped you find a way in to the middle class. Of course, now all those landmarks are gone.

“They’re tore down. That’s how gone they are,” Chase says. “So you can’t use that as a landmark, to find you know, what you want.”

So how do you find what you want, these days in Flint? Chase is hoping the answer is at Mott Community College, where she is now, studying in the student lounge. Chase is 45 years old. Around the time she was finishing high school, in the 1980s, auto factories were beginning to shut down. She found a job as a home health aid, but the money wasn’t great. Which is why she’s back in school now, for a nursing degree.

“Hopefully in the next three years,” Chase say. “That’s a big hope.”

There hasn’t been a lot of hope in Flint lately. It kinda left town with the factories. Now, the landmarks in Flint are boarded up buildings and police tape. Flint has one of the highest murder rates in the country.

“Flint is so depressing to me now,” says Keosha Betts, 20, another Mott College student who is cramming for finals in the student lounge. “Every time you turn around, there’s somebody you know who died, and it’s not even a shock no more.” 

Betts’ plan is to get out of Flint, where, like the rest of the country, one of the fastest growing parts of the economy is low-wage service jobs. That fact is painfully obvious to Bett’s friend, Krystal Rawls, who’s looking for a job to help pay for college.  She pulls up a local Flint job site, and points. Fast food, retail, working in a group home. The thing about all these listings is that they’re basically all minimum wage, says Rawls. “You can’t expect all kind of benefits and stuff like that. It’s not a career, it’s a job.”

From left: Krystal Rawls, Ariaena Williams and Keosha Betts

That’s exactly why Rawls and Betts are in college. They want careers. And that’s a really good idea, says Charles Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University. “The real secret to prosperity for the future is having a more highly educated workforce,” he says.

There’s just one problem. Even though community colleges like Mott are filled with people chasing down an education, the reality is that currently, most Americans -- 70 percent -- do not have a college degree. In Michigan alone, several hundred thousand adults are high school dropouts.

“And we have millions who have a high school diploma, but who nevertheless don’t have the skills that are really necessary to fit in to the modern economy,” Ballard says.

A generation or two ago, we were able to provide middle class wages and benefits for people who didn’t have college degrees -- thanks in big part to those unionized factory jobs. But the economy has changed since then, says Ballard, and “that is really the great challenge that the entire country and not just Michigan faces.”

Which brings us to another landmark that’s still standing around here: A bar called BJ’s. But no one in Flint calls it that. 

“It’s not BJ’s, it’s dancing sandwiches,” says one of the bartenders, Valerie James. She explains that they have dancing, and they serve sandwiches. So that’s what the sign says, to the confusion of many.

“We get new people coming in, they say, ‘Where are the dancing sandwiches?’” she says. She says she tells them, “You just missed them. They just clocked out!”

But the actual humans James knows, who are doing actual clocking out these days, can barely make a living, she says.

“This is like a ghost town around here  anymore,” says James. “It’s hard to find good-paying jobs. Right now, everyone’s just grabbing what they can to make ends meet.  You got a family, you know you’ve got to do whatever you can to support them.” 

James, and everyone else in town knows, that these days, for those who don’t have a college degree and don’t plan on getting one, the brightest spots on the landscape are mostly low-wage jobs, like bartending.

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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