Few hopes when older workers lose jobs

by on May 21st, 2004

Let’s say you’re 45 to 60 years old, employed in a non-union factory which pays a barely decent wage.

You have pretty good health care insurance through the company, which sure comes in handy for those frequent blood pressure and cholesterol screenings, and pays a portion of your prescription expense.

The retirement package is poor-to-mediocre, but maybe between the little bit you put into it plus Social Security and Medicare, it looks like you’ll be able to eat, pay utilities, and buy your medicine once you retire. You have resolved not to think about any catastrophic emergencies.

You can’t put as much into the retirement fund as the financial experts suggest, because you are raising three children. On top of the expense of caring for them, all three want to go to college. Because you’ve spent your working life toiling on the floor of a factory, you know higher education is important, and you’re determined to see your children have a better life.

Then your job is “outsourced”, or the company goes under.

You get another job, right? What if there are no other jobs available in your area?

Commute? Have you seen gas prices lately?

Retrain for another career? There are no other jobs, remember?

The following article is a couple of months old, but increasingly relevant today, especially as the economy “improves”.

Take a look at life in Martinsville, Virginia – and remember, their situation is shared by hundreds of communities all over the country.

Job retraining offers limited hope in hard-hit textile, furniture belt

Regina Warren, 44, who was laid off in a 1999 plant closing, is all but resigned to a life of lower expectations.

“It may take me years to get to the point where I was when I fell down,” she said. In fact, she added, “I don’t think we’ll ever really get back.”


The nation has shed 3 million manufacturing jobs in the past four years, thrusting trade into the spotlight in the presidential campaign. Democrats attack President Bush over his record in office. Bush promises that his tax cuts will lead to new jobs. But in Martinsville, (Virginia) all that seems theoretical. Reality is that thousands of jobs have left, and few new ones are on the horizon.

“Job retraining” is a nice, easy sound bite, but the fact is – jobs have disappeared, and the few that have been created are often lower paid with fewer or no benefits.

“There’s training being offered,” said Thomas Harned, the economic development director for Martinsville, “but training for what?”

Sometimes, the community colleges themselves can offer employment –

Former textile worker Warren, a part-time office assistant at the college, sits behind a desk making appointments for students who want to meet with career counselors.

She earns $9 an hour and clocks just 30 hours a week with no benefits. When she sewed sweatshirts, she made $12 to $13 hourly during the best years, and supplemented her income with overtime work.

Warren is a product of federally funded retraining. She enrolled at Patrick Henry in 2000 to learn office skills. Her family gave up summer vacations and cashed in $4,000 in savings bonds to pay bills, money that had been set aside for their son’s college education.

Warren earned a two-year degree in business-oriented computer skills, but couldn’t find a job when she graduated. She worked at a supermarket, earning $6 an hour. Eventually, the community college hired her as an office assistant.

Even today, the Warrens can’t afford to fix the water pipes that leak into their basement. Instead, they turned off a valve, shutting off the outside water supply.

But remember – in our little scenario laid out at the beginning, you’re nearing retirement.

But the results of retraining are limited. It tides workers over and prepares them for new jobs – but it doesn’t provide jobs.

Only about 10 percent of qualified workers retrain. Some find other jobs; others think they’re too old to go back to school.

“I’m 59 years old; what do I want to go to school for?” said former textile worker Robert Nichols, who lives in nearby Bassett, home of Bassett Furniture Industries. “And there ain’t no jobs available around here anyway.”

Calvin Gravely, who was laid off with 2,300 others when VF Imagewear shuttered in 2001, thinks the government should do more to help those hurt by free trade.

Added this to the poison-potion – community colleges are bursting at the seams with increased enrollment and decreased funding.

Should government do more? Should people give up on the “American Dream” because American business can be conducted cheaper in other countries?

Should there be massive public works projects, similar to the FDR’s “New Deal” era? While we wait for the economy to bounce (or crawl) back, what is the government and/or corporate responsibility for the cast-off workers?