WASHINGTON - The steady loss of "good jobs" by less-educated workers has left them more vulnerable to recession than at any time in nearly 30 years, and signs are mounting that a recession is either already here or coming soon.
High-school dropouts and even high-school graduates who lack specialized job training have seen their already limited employment prospects steadily decline during America's decades-long shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy.
Not long ago, Americans who were unable to attend college could count on finding local factory jobs after high school. The lucky ones landed in muscular industries such as aviation, steel and automobiles, while others found work on assembly lines building durable goods.
These and other "good jobs" were the signature byproducts of a robust economy that once was the envy of the world. The jobs provided stability and decent wages that allowed families to buy homes, provide for their children and retire in modest comfort.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research defines a "good job" as one with health insurance, a pension plan and earnings of at least $17 per hour. That works out to about $34,000 a year, the inflation-adjusted median income for men in 1979, when U.S. manufacturing jobs numbered 19.6 million, an all-time high.
Since then, however, the economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs - 52,000 in February alone. Among them were many of the 3.5 million "good jobs" lost from 2000 to 2006, according to John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR.
As those jobs disappeared, many blue-collar workers were forced to take jobs with far less pay and benefit security.
This caused the share of high-school graduates with good jobs to fall from about one in five in 1979 to one in seven in 2005, Schmitt found. For those who didn't finish high school, the decline was even steeper. The share of these workers with good jobs fell from roughly one in seven to one in 25 over the same period.
With a recession certain to accelerate job losses, experts say that less-educated workers who lack marketable job skills likely will have the hardest time holding onto their jobs and the toughest time finding new employment.
"With the economy poised for a recession, or in one, and with savings diminished and home equity at risk, this is a particularly challenging time because there's no cushion for many of these workers. For them, their job is everything," said Thea Lee, the policy director for the AFL-CIO.
"People in the middle and at the bottom (of the wage scale) are going to be the bulk of the victims in a recession," Schmitt said. "They're proportionally going to take a much bigger hit."
In Groveton, N.H., where papermaking has long been a part of local life, Murray Rogers was among 300 workers who lost their jobs in December when the sprawling Wassau Paper mill on the Upper Ammonoosuc River shut its doors after more than 100 years of operation.
Rogers remembers it well because his last day on the job was also his birthday. "There wasn't much to celebrate," he said.
Only five years ago, more than a thousand people worked in four paper plants in Coos County, where Groveton is located. But high energy costs and cheaper foreign competition have forced all but one to close. The Fraser Paper plant in nearby Gorham still employs about 350 workers, but 167 will be laid off in April, Rogers said.
A 50-year-old pipefitter and welder, Rogers was a year out of high school in 1976 when he began working at the mill. Over his 31 years at the plant, his wages had swelled to nearly $21 an hour.
"This was one of the last high-income jobs in the area," Rogers said. "We knew within a few years, we'd be in trouble, but we figured another (neighboring) mill would go down before us."
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As president of the local steelworkers union, Rogers took a one-year job with a group that helps find jobs for displaced mill workers. Most are taking pay cuts as they try to find new careers without the higher education and specialized training that the new job market demands.
"The jobs are low-paying or they don't have benefits or you have to travel" long distances, which eats up money for gasoline, Rogers said.
Brian Crutchfield of Cincinnati has been wrestling with a tight job market since he lost his $28-an-hour job as a machine operator in July 2006 when Ford announced plans to close its Batavia, Ohio, plant later this year.
Crutchfield, 44, who worked at Ford a little more than three years, was fortunate to receive a $100,000 buyout. But after taxes and paying down some debt, the money was quickly exhausted. Crutchfield says a good job is tough to find.
"I really didn't believe it would be that hard to find jobs, but there's no more jobs like that out there anymore." Crutchfield said. "At least not in this area. Even when Ford hires new people, they're going to pay them less."
Crutchfield said his Ford experience has actually worked against him.
"When (employers) found out where I came from, it was 'hands off' because the money we made there was so much more than what they were offering. They thought people would (quit) and return to Ford" if they were called back, Crutchfield said.
With hopes of earning a bachelor's degree, Crutchfield takes business courses at a local university, but has found only temporary work since leaving Ford. His wife owns a beauty shop, so their income has remained fairly stable. A strongly religious man, Crutchfield said his faith keeps him confident that things will work out.
"I'm not worried about a recession," he said. "I know (God) has something for me because he wouldn't have brought me here if he didn't. So I'm not out there falling apart because my faith is in him."
Helping fuel the loss of good jobs has been a decline in union membership, industry deregulation, increased outsourcing of state and government services and economic policies that focus more on containing inflation than on maintaining full employment, Schmitt said.
As good jobs become harder to find, bad jobs have become much easier to get. In 1979, 41 percent of workers who didn't finish high school held "bad jobs," those with no health insurance or pension plans and paid less than $16.50 an hour in inflation-adjusted wages. By 2005, that number had gown to 61 percent, Schmitt found.
David Meza of Beaverton, Ore., is struggling to escape that trend. Meza, 47, worked 14 years assembling heavy-duty trucks for the Freightliner truck company. But when most of the production operations were moved to Mexico, he was laid off in March 2007.
An 11th-grade dropout who taught himself to read and write, Meza never earned his General Equivalency Diploma because he was making $21.50 an hour without it. He didn't realize his mistake until he started looking for a new job.
"I had a lot of experience. I ran a forklift, worked at canneries in Alaska, been a truck driver, but none of that matters unless I've got a GED. So I'm pushing myself as hard as I've ever done in my life to get it," he said.
As the job search continues, Meza longs for the days when overtime was plentiful and employers interviewed job applicants in person, instead of reading their resumes online.
"Those were the good ol' days," he said.
© McClatchy Newspapers 2008