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INDIANAPOLIS — During the first week in December, I took my ninth trip of the year to Indianapolis, where I’d been following a group of steelworkers at the Rexnord bearing plant whose jobs were moving to Monterrey, Mexico. This was a chance to check in on how they’ve been doing since the factory closed.
Many of them had worked at the plant since the day they stepped out of high school. I wanted to know how they were faring in the new economy that has sprung up outside the factory walls.
The trip also presented an opportunity to take stock of the bigger economic picture and foster a conversation about the future of blue-collar jobs in America.
On Dec. 7, I moderated a town hall-style talk about the future of United States manufacturing at WFYI, the local National Public Radio affiliate, with Shannon Mulcahy, the steelworker I profiled in October, and three other panelists.
To be honest, I felt a bit nervous about it. I’m used to agonizing over every word I write, not talking off the cuff in public.
But in the end, this trip back to Indianapolis felt almost like a homecoming. I’d been there enough times to have acquired a favorite coffee shop, a favorite bar and a favorite gym. I looked forward to going back.
I checked in with some of the people I’d interviewed. Some had gotten new jobs at other factories or construction sites, making $10 an hour less than they had been making before. One had gotten a job delivering packages. He marveled at how grueling and thankless the work is. Others were still looking. Shannon Mulcahy has yet to find a new job, although a wealthy well-wisher who read my article has offered her a position at a hotel in Las Vegas. She is considering it, but feeling a bit scared about making such a big move.
At the Dec. 7 event, Shannon told an audience of around 60 attendees about the cards, photographs and messages she’d received from people all over the world after the article was published. Some had even sent money.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “I didn’t think very many people would even care about another factory closing.”
Thanking people kept her busy for a time. Then she focused on caring for her disabled granddaughter, Carmella, who had just celebrated her fifth birthday with chocolate cake that Shannon had time to bake now that she’s no longer employed.
Yet after working seven days a week for months on end, it feels strange to her to have so much time on her hands.
“I miss my job,” she admitted.
One of the biggest takeaways for me from the event was the grim news delivered by Emily Wornell, an assistant professor at Ball State University, who has looked at the potential for job loss through automation and outsourcing in every county in the country.
Ms. Wornell’s research suggests that no matter how painful those disruptions have been to American workers over the last few decades, they are likely to look small compared to what’s to come.
In the next generation or so, she said, “You’ve got counties where upwards of two-thirds of the jobs have the potential of being automated” or outsourced.
Keith Belton, director of the Manufacturing Policy Initiative at Indiana University Bloomington, predicted that United States factories would continue to produce more goods than ever before, with far fewer people.
My exchange with Stu Kaplan — founder and chief executive of Makuta, a company that makes tiny plastic parts for medical devices and printers — underscored that point:
“Stu, how many parts do you make in a year?” I asked.
“Between 150 to 200 million,” he replied.
“How many people do you employ?”
Some of the most telling revelations came from the audience.
One woman, who identified herself as a shop steward with S.E.I.U., a labor union, told the crowd she had to work two jobs just to make ends meet.
Another decried a culture that no longer provides job security, health insurance or a pension.
“I am a highly educated single white woman and I can’t get paid more than $10 or $15 in this city,” she complained. “When you do get a job, it’ll be in a room of a thousand people just like me. (We are scoring the country’s English exams.) . . . And yet we are all going to be fired en masse every three months.”
Their comments pointed to an agonizing trade-off that Indiana seems to have made: To attract employers, the state adopted business-friendly policies, including lower tax rates and a “right to work” law that undercuts unions.
Signs of a vibrant economy abound. Technology-oriented firms, including Angie’s List and Sales Force, dot the Indianapolis skyline. Unemployment in the state has dropped below 4 percent, the lowest it has been since 2001, according to the United States Department of Labor. Yet Indiana is one of only a handful of states where real median wages have declined over the past 10 years.
Despite all the efforts to woo employers, many workers feel their jobs are perpetually on the verge of disappearing.
But I also found numerous hopeful signs during my trip. I met with Danette Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, which is trying to develop a skills-based credential that would allow workers like Shannon to apply skills acquired on the job toward an industry-recognized certification; and with James Danko, president of Butler University, which is a founding partner of The Speak Easy, a nonprofit space in downtown Indianapolis that has served as an incubator for high tech. Butler is also looking to expand ways that nontraditional students who can’t afford to go to college full time can take advantage of what the university has to offer.
The road ahead for blue-collar workers in Indianapolis certainly won’t be easy. But I now have reasons to hope that community-based solutions might be found.