Factory jobs don't bring the same financial security
CHICAGO — Jim Ellis had a job with benefits but gave it up for a shot at something with a bright future, if he could just get his foot in the door.
In this part of the country, that meant he wanted to work for Caterpillar Inc., the construction equipment powerhouse.
Now Ellis is on the morning shift at the company's East Peoria, Ill., plant, installing fenders on tractors and working on hydraulic lines, a manufacturing job description that once promised an American middle-class lifestyle.
The reality for Ellis is nothing like that.
With the job he started this year, his pay jumped by $5 to $15.57 per hour, but he has no medical benefits for himself or his 3-year-old daughter, custody of whom he shares with his ex-girlfriend. Between rent and child support, he acknowledges falling back on his parents for support.
“If you talk to my mom and dad, they would tell you I'm an idiot because I'm barely making ends meet,” Ellis, 38, said.
Reflecting on his pay, Ellis recalled the years he worked as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant. “It was one of the easiest jobs I've had,” he said. It was also the best-paying job he's had. He earned up to $34,000 a year – a little more than $16 an hour.
His move to Caterpillar hardly evokes the kind of jobs most people think about when they hear President Obama or his challenger, Mitt Romney, talk about bringing back manufacturing.
The days when workers earned enough money to buy a car, a boat or a second home while supporting their families no longer exist for a growing number of people employed in manufacturing.
Factory jobs can still be good, but in the past three decades, benefits have eroded and pay has stagnated for many — or even fallen.
Some entry-level manufacturing jobs pay so little that workers depend on government aid to feed their families and pay for health care.
Take Charles Montgomery. Until he was laid off in mid-September, he worked for a staffing agency that supplies labor to Caterpillar.
Montgomery, 28, was paid $8.75 an hour as a forklift operator and put in as many as 70 hours a week to support his three children and fiancee, and relied on government aid to buy food.
Even then, he said he pinched pennies to pay for a $3.65 doctor's visit or a $2 prescription, made affordable through a government-backed health care program for the poor.
Wages have declined across many industries, including manufacturing, as unions have lost their bargaining clout, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank based in Washington.
Between 1973 and 2011, the median hourly compensation of workers, including wages and benefits, rose only 10.7 percent.
With more than 12.5 million people in the United States unemployed, some politicians push manufacturing as an answer to the nation's economic woes, suggesting that bringing back factory jobs from overseas represents a return to greater prosperity. Gary Pisano, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of “Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance,” is skeptical of that approach.
“The idea that we will employ a large share of workers in manufacturing again is not going to happen,” Pisano said.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Stock market makes biggest gain in 3 years
- Harmar developer sells 15 hotels in Western Pa., West Virginia
- Rice Energy spin-off priced below expected range
- Wesco cautious, reaffirms guidance
- Federated Investors forecasts optimistic scenario for growth in economy, markets
- EDMC accused in GI Bill scheme
- Natural gas groups says increase in Pennsylvania taxes would bring dire results for economy
- Alcoa buying jet engine components maker Tital to help expand aerospace unit
- Thread of East Liberty morphs bottles into ‘authentic’ products
- FedEx to buy product-return firm Genco in e-commerce push
- States worry about trickle-down of oil