Maytag Study: Is There Hope for Factory Workers in a Post-Industrial America?

maytag-studyHe's one of the most recognizable characters in TV commercials. The Maytag Repairman. The poor guy has nothing to do, because Maytag appliances are so reliable they never break down. So the commercial goes.

Despite not having anything to do, it appears the Maytag Repairman still has a job -- unlike many real-life Maytag employees who, over the years, have lost their jobs as manufacturing gets sent to lower cost factories in Mexico.

Now, a major study is under way to find out what happened to those displaced workers.

Losing jobs to foreign countries

In the spring of 2006, Maytag was bought out by the Whirlpool Corp., which started closing down factories and sending jobs overseas. But, even before that, Maytag was putting American workers out of work. One of the hardest hit areas was Galesburg, Ill., a small town about 60 miles northwest of Peoria.

In 2002, the Maytag factory in Galesburg sent letters to its workers letting them know the plant would be shutting down over the course of the next two years. The work they did was being sent to a factory in Mexico. In September 2004, the factory closed its doors for good, directly putting around 1,600 people out of work. The ripple effect of those job losses ultimately led to more that 4,100 people losing jobs.

The factory closing devastated people. The factory, in one form or another, had been employing generations of people for 100 years. A man named Randy Cowell, whose father had worked at the factory, used the closing to write a book about the loss of industrial jobs. In the book, 'The Most Un American Event Ever,' Cowell described how his father felt:

"His fears began years before the plant ever made the announcement to close. Now that he is certain he will lose his job, his emotions regarding the closing are nearly uncontrollable."

Studying what happened afterward

The general belief is that when factories such as this close, most people who lose their jobs struggle to find other work, often wind up making a lot less money, and are much less happy. But, is that always the case, and is there hope for factory workers in a post-industrial America?

A new study being done by professors and students at Knox College in Galesburg is trying to find out the answers to these questions. Professor Marilyn Webb is spearheading the study, which is based on some in-depth interviews and a large survey of former Maytag factory workers.

"This was a town where factories provided a good living," she told me. "And, it provided a lot of jobs for women as well as men."

Manufacturing jobs started getting shipped to Mexico after the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Because NAFTA was putting U.S. workers out of work, there were provisions for federal funds to help retrain people.

Of the 900 blue-collar Maytag workers who lost their jobs in 2004, about one-third of them got retraining at a local community college in Galesburg. "Six years have gone by, and we wanted to know how successful this program was," Webb said. "If this is post-industrial America, does this work? Can people reinvent themselves?"

Taking a closer look

Webb heads the journalism department at Knox College, and last spring she assigned students to profile nine former Maytag employees to see how their lives had changed.

"A lot of people who had a terrible time since then didn't want to talk about it," she said. "The people willing to talk went back to school and discovered potentials they never knew they had." Many of the factory workers, she told me, came from a mindset that college wasn't for them or that they would not succeed at college. The factory closing forced some to give it a try.

"One woman studied mechanical drawing and got a job with a company designing fire trucks," Webb said. "And now she is studying mechanical engineering. Another went back to school and became a nurse, working with newborns at a local hospital. She is making more money now than she had before." Interestingly, Webb told me it appeared women were more successful then men in turning things around for themselves.

Trying to see the bigger picture

The initial profiles sparked a desire to see the bigger picture. How many of the former factory workers were able to reinvent themselves and how many wound up suffering? She gathered professors across several disciplines, along with seven of the former workers who were profiled, the former union president from the factory, and students, to put together a comprehensive survey. It was just mailed out to 427 of the former Maytag workers. The survey is set up so respondents can remain anonymous and hopefully be willing to share their stories, both good and bad. Webb is optimistic about the response.

"We just mailed out the surveys two weeks ago and we already have 86 sent back," she said.

What does she think the survey will reveal?

"I suspect we'll find many people had a terrible time and others were able to reinvent themselves." She wants to see what the facts are behind the myth that most factory workers wind up in the employment graveyard when they lose their jobs. "Are some people happier now?" she wants to know. "Do we have hope for an economy where jobs are going to China and Mexico?"

The profiles and the results of the survey will be published in cooperation with local newspapers in the Galesburg area early next year. There's also a plan to put together a multimedia project that will include interviews and photographs of some of the former Maytag employees.

Next:3.2 Million Job Openings: 5 Things You Should Know About Them

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