The road back to the factory floor

Mitchell Hartman Apr 6, 2012

So a bright spot-in this morning’s report on jobs. Manufacturing keeps adding them. Since hitting rock-bottom in 2009, manufacturing has added nearly 500,000 jobs. But for many of those lucky enough to get back on the factory floor, wages and benefits are down.

Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman has been reporting on the changing blue-collar middle class for our Wealth and Poverty Desk. He met one of these workers in the industrial belt of northwestern Illinois.

Mitchell Hartman: Scott Silvis is 46, married with two kids. He owns a modest home close to where he works—at North American Tool in South Beloit, Illinois. It’s a specialty manufacturing plant that makes precision machine parts.

Silvis is feeling pretty lucky. Unemployment in this region’s over 13 percent. During the recession, he suffered two years of repeated layoffs and unemployment, before finally being hired here in 2010.

Scott Silvis: I was just looking for that one company that would give me a chance, you know, see something in me. And now I’m right back, working hard.

…for around $17-per-hour to $10-per-hour less than at his last factory job — at GM’s huge assembly plant in nearby Janesville. Silvis — a high school graduate — worked there for more than a decade, until GM downsized and shut the plant down in 2008.

Silvis: I consider 2008 and 2009 two of the worst financial years of my life, you know. Especially having two children, it was a big shock, I wasn’t prepared for it.

Hartman: Did you lose your house, were you able to make the mortgage payment?

Silvis: No, luckily, I never bit off too much more than I couldn’t chew. I kind of pride myself on paying my bills. But still, not being the breadwinner, and she was making the money at the time, it was traumatic for me as a father.

Then, at the height of the recession, his wife lost her job at the nearby Chrysler plant.

All Silvis could find were low-wage jobs—assembling office cubicles, reading utility meters. He got laid off twice more, as those companies cut back—last hired, first fired.

Silvis: The employers, they could pick and choose. If you weren’t really the guy that they were looking for, you were set aside. And a lot of it you had to go through temporary services.

Hartman: Why didn’t you want to do that?

Silvis: You’re not eligible for the same benefits and the same pay packages that the other employees are. So I don’t think those are a very good deal for the working class.

Now, Silvis has held on to the steady working-class job that he was looking for—full-time, with benefits—for going on two years. He’s slowly building back his savings, and his self-esteem. He plans to stay awhile.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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