The Next American Dream

With factory jobs gone, couple retools

Sarah Gardner May 14, 2009
The Next American Dream

With factory jobs gone, couple retools

Sarah Gardner May 14, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: This country has been, since the very beginning, a place where you can get a second chance. Where you can always pick your self up and try again. But with the economy knocking so many people down, how easy is it to start all over in America right now, especially in middle age?

Today our series “The Next American Dream” heads to Toledo, Ohio. From the Marketplace Sustainability desk, Sarah Gardner brings us the story of a couple trying to write their second act.

SARAH GARDNER: When Ginger Buford nabbed her first job at a manufacturing plant in Toledo, it was hardly love at first sight.

GINGER BUFORD: I really wasn’t too crazy about working in a factory. It was a little scary for a young 18-year-old. And I told my father I was going to quit. And he says, “Oh, you better not quit that job. That’s a good job.” And I thought, “If that’s a good job, I’d hate to see a bad one!”

Ginger’s husband, Jim, was 17 when he started working at that same tool and die plant. But he saw a bright future.

JIM BUFORD: I was even told, “Y’know, hey, you stay here, the union is gonna take care of you. And in 30 years you’ll be able to retire.”

Up until a few years ago, manufacturing did take care of the Bufords, now both in their 50s. At the peak, they were pulling in close to $90,000 a year with overtime. They moved to the countryside and bought a four-bedroom ranch house on two acres.

The backyard was big enough for a pool, Jim’s workshop, a vegetable garden, and a couple of peacocks not inclined to preen for visitors.

GINGER: Hey, fluff it out. What are you doing?

But Ginger and Jim don’t have much time to dote on their peacocks these days. The manufacturing jobs that helped realize their dream of a quiet life in the country are drying up.

In 1998 the Bufords lost their original jobs when the tool and die plant closed down. They quickly found new employment, but those jobs vanished in yet another factory closing in 2005.

The Bufords started to worry manufacturing wouldn’t carry them through to retirement. And when Jim had trouble finding employment again, the Bufords decided it was time to reinvent themselves.

JIM: It frightened me. Absolutely frightened me.

Thanks to federal retraining funds, the Bufords are now both back in school, a place neither had stepped foot in since high school in the ’70s.

GINGER: The teacher’s talking about what we’ll be doing for the semester, and writing these essays. I’ve never wrote an essay. I’ve never did any kind of writing. And I think, “Oh, I’m not going to be able to make it.”

Ginger and Jim are making it, but it hasn’t been without delays and missteps. Ginger had to enlist the help of her congresswoman to break through the red tape around federal retraining funds. And Jim spent a year getting trained in a trade that never panned out — heating and air conditioning maintenance.

JIM: Every place that was hiring wanted two to three years experience.

So now he’s back in community college, five nights a week.

JIM: It was very disappointing to me. And for me to want to go back to school again was, y’know . . . it was tough. But I have no choice.

[Sound of algebra teacher]

Jim’s now suffering through algebra, among other classes. He wants to get an associate’s degree in electrical systems.

Meanwhile, Ginger is studying office administration. She has a part-time office job right now, but she hopes to get an accounting certificate as well. After all, she says, unlike manufacturing, taxes never go away.

Robert LaLonde, an economist at the University of Chicago, says people like the Bufords generally can remake themselves, but at a cost.

ROBERT LALONDE: They’re going to find a new job eventually which will pay, on average, about 15 to 25 percent less than what they got paid before. And that’s going to be something that they’re going to experience probably for the rest of their careers.

Younger, more educated workers have an easier time reinventing themselves, LaLonde says. And community colleges have successfully retrained many middle-class Americans who’ve lost their careers to offshoring or automation. He believes the U.S. is still a land of opportunity, but not for those without at least some college education.

LALONDE: I think this notion of lifelong learning is a very important concept we need to emphasize to everyone in our economy. You constantly have to be learning new skills, trying out new things, in order to be in a position to reinvent yourself when you have to.

That’s a notion Jim Buford seemed to figure out on his own. He’s convinced wind and solar power are the future — that explains the major in electrical systems. And it’s already paying off.

One of Jim’s college instructors owns a small solar company. He hired Jim last year full-time as a solar panel installer. It’s hard, physical work and typically pays about 15 bucks an hour — $5 less than his former wages.

JIM: I’ve always worked inside of a factory, and now I’m out into the elements of Mother Nature and she can be pretty harsh.

Still, Jim says he’s grateful to have the job and wants to learn as much as he can about renewable energy. He’s hoping his associate’s degree will help him get a job that pays more and doesn’t involve so much physical labor.

Jim says this mid-life transition has been the hardest thing he and Ginger have ever done. And it’s not clear whether their “re-education” will deliver the comfortable life they once enjoyed.

GINGER: I just keep moving forward.

JIM: I look for 2011 to start picking up. I really do. If not, I will be very disappointed.

Things are beginning to pick up. Just recently Jim got health insurance through his employer — the first time the Bufords have been covered in four years.

In Toledo, Ohio, I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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