TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: Fishermen and women along the Gulf Coast now find themselves in a situation familiar to so many other industries — the auto industry, even shuttle astronauts. What happens when your chosen livelihood is up-ended by technology or globalization? Or in this case, ecological catastrophe? How do you plan? How do you recover? How do you know when it’s really time to start thinking about a different line of work?
We’re going to put those questions to Gary Chaison. He’s a professor of industrial relations at Clark University’s Graduate School of Management. Thanks for joining us.
Gary Chaison: Thank you very much.
Vigeland: Is it too early to be talking about the end, or potentially years-long break, for the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico?
Chaison: I don’t think it’s too early to talk about that. I think the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico is pretty much gone. We just don’t know if it’s going to be gone in Louisiana or Alabama or Mississippi or if it’s going to affect a large part of Florida or even the Atlantic coast. But we know that there’s going to be bad news coming out of this.
Vigeland: So I know that you’ve spent a lot of time studying what happens when industries find themselves in this position, whether it’s the auto industry or the finance industry recently, even journalism right now, newspapers. What does history tell you about what’s going to happen here for these workers?
Chaison: We can have two waves of bad effects. The first will be the workers who actually lose their jobs, and in the case of the fishermen in the Gulf, it’s not only losing their jobs, but losing their boats and probably losing their homes as well. And the second effect will be the effect on the communities that they live in. The tax base will decrease, the families will be moving out of those towns, teachers will lose their jobs and police and firefighters will lose their jobs, as well — and then even more people will leave those towns. So, essentially, we’re not only seeing an ecological disaster in the Gulf, we’re seeing an unemployment disaster and a social disaster as well.
Vigeland: What are some of the options, aside from having a sizable savings account, when you start to see that your entire livelihood could be threatened. How do you prepare for that, particularly when it happens so suddenly, like it’s happening in the Gulf?
Chaison: Well, if you’re fortunate to be living in an area where there is also growing sectors of the economy — for instance, in education or teaching, then you might be able to establish a foundation of skills, which then can be further developed with training. But fishermen live in towns, which are dependent on the fishing industry. It’s one thing to say we’re going to develop new skills and establish a foundation of skills that’ll help us find jobs — but job retraining programs will help workers if there are jobs available. But if there aren’t jobs available, then it could just be frustrating.
Vigeland: And you know, when a job isn’t just a job, it’s your identity, it must be hard to admit that anything could happen to it, and hard to think of yourself doing anything else.
Chaison: Well, probably the saddest part about what’s happening in the Gulf coast is, this is the identity of the workers who are fishing there and shrimping there. This is what they’ve been doing for generations, and the assumption was that the jobs would always be there, and that they would have these jobs — which not everyone could do — and this is going to disappear.
Vigeland: And I wonder if there are also extra hurdles when you’ve trained for something either highly skilled — you know, the Orion space program is phasing out; you’ve literally got rocket scientists who are out of work — or highly specialized, like the oystermen and the shrimpers. You don’t really have any sort of generalized skill to fall back on.
Chaison: Exactly. The problem is that these people have become so specialized that they specialize themselves out of the market, if emergency situations do occur. So for instance, people who work in the defense industries or in a space program, when their jobs go, they have to make a major readjustment. And what they thought of as a prestige position that they earned, no longer is there. Just seems tremendously unfair.
Vigeland: So, is there a lesson here for all of us to take home?
Chaison: I think the lesson here for all of us is to try to find positions in industries where we have a broad foundation of skills, and to expect that the job we have now will not last forever and that we can maintain some flexibility and move onto other jobs if we have the basic foundations which enables us to do that.
Vigeland: Gary Chaison teaches labor relations at Clark University. Thanks so much for chatting with us today.
Chaison: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
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