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Degrees of Separation: As Economy Shifts, A New Generation Fights to Keep Up

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Moving Up: Challenges to The American Dream — — In Milwaukee, Factories Close And Skills, Not Seniority, Are Key to Advancement — An Ex-Welder’s Computer Job
By GregIp
2691 words
22 June 2005
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

[Fifth in a Series]

MILWAUKEE — In 1957, Wayne Hall, then 24 years old, responded to a help-wanted shingle outside Badger Die Casting on this city’s south side. He started work the next day, and, over the years, rose from machinery operator to machinery inspector to chief inspector. He helped organize a union, got regular raises, enjoyed generous pension and health benefits and, eventually, five weeks of vacation. At age 72, he is retired and can afford to travel with his wife to Disneyland and Tahiti.

It was a typical Milwaukee factory worker’s escalator ride to the middle class. His stepson Ron Larson, 58, thought he’d ride that escalator, too. He was wrong.

In 1971, Mr. Larson went to work as a welder in the fabrication shop of a factory across the street from Badger that made rock crushers and other heavy equipment. By 1981, he was earning roughly as much as his stepfather. But he was laid off that year. Mr. Larson has held many jobs since — tour-boat operator, trucker, air-conditioning repairman. Except for one year, he has yet to earn as much as he did at the welding job. Today, he works as a computer support technician, but the contract job runs just six weeks and he doesn’t know if he’ll still be working after that.

“I always believed if you worked hard, your rewards would come,” Mr. Larson said earlier this year when he was between jobs. “I said there’s no way I’m going to be like that guy sleeping under the bridge, or homeless. Right now I don’t think that.”

The gap between poor and rich in the U.S. has widened over the past 30 years. But people born to modest circumstances are no more likely to rise above their parents’ station. The divergent fates of Mr. Hall and his stepson — and others in this blue-collar city — illustrate why it can be hard to move up.

Industrial jobs that offered steady escalators of advancement for workers, even if they were only high-school graduates, are vanishing in America. In their place are service-economy jobs with fewer ways up. Unions are scarcer and temporary work more common. In newer service jobs that have come to dominate the U.S. economy, a college diploma is increasingly the prerequisite to a good wage. While increased access to college has been a powerful force for mobility, the share of workers with college degrees remains a minority. Moreover, getting a degree is closely correlated with having parents who themselves went to college.

Milwaukee was once dotted with factories where thousands worked for good wages — making electrical generators at Allis-Chalmers Corp., beer at Pabst Brewing Co. and truck bodies at Heil Co. It was the fictional home of TV working girls Laverne and Shirley. The city, says John Gurda, a local historian, was “not just egalitarian but proletarian”: It had Socialist mayors from 1910 to 1960.

When Wayne Hall proposed in 1957 to Lois Larson, who had three children from a prior marriage, she insisted he get a steady job before they got married. She was the one who spotted the shingle outside Badger on Oklahoma Avenue. “During the good days, Oklahoma Avenue was all factories,” he recalls. “You could walk from one shop down Oklahoma Avenue and get a job in another shop.”

In the past decade, manufacturing’s share of employment in Milwaukee has fallen to 16% from around 20%, though that’s still above the national average. Mr. Hall’s old factory is still on Oklahoma Avenue, but the metal fabrication plant where Mr. Larson worked finally closed last year after withering for decades. One of the plant’s former parking lots is now a supermarket where Mr. Larson’s wife, Kathy, works. Across the street from the supermarket an old Caterpillar factory is being torn down to make way for a Home Depot. A few miles to the west, the site of the old Heil factory is occupied by Aurora Health Care, a nonprofit corporation that owns hospitals and clinics and is the state’s largest private employer.

Milwaukee as a whole is solid and there are many conspicuous signs of affluence. Condominiums in two new luxury towers rising on the downtown lakefront sell for $700,000 to $2.5 million. The old Pabst brewery plant downtown, which closed in 1996, is the site of a proposed $317 million shopping, entertainment and residential complex to be called PabstCity.

Milwaukee, like the whole country, has experienced a polarization in incomes in recent decades. In 1979, the wealthiest 10% of households in the city earned about six times as much as the bottom tenth, according to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development. In 1999, they earned nearly 15 times as much.

“Deindustrialization has swept away a whole swath of jobs” for workers without a college education, says Marc Levine, the center’s director. “With the growing premium that’s placed on college degrees, that has contributed to a widening income gap.”

Mr. Larson blames foreign trade for his job troubles, and last year joined a bus tour organized by the AFL-CIO to draw attention to jobs lost to foreign trade and outsourcing.

In the 1990s Mr. Larson, who holds a high-school graduate equivalency degree, taught himself to use computers and worked for 18 months in technical support at S.C. Johnson &Son Inc., the home-cleaning-products maker, in nearby Racine, Wis. In 2000, he made $53,000 and finally surpassed his 1981 welder’s salary after taking inflation into account. The next year, his contract with S.C. Johnson ended.

His wife, Kathy, whose father owned a truck and distributed candy to local stores, worked two decades at Kmart before she was laid off. She now makes $8.05 an hour stocking shelves part-time at a supermarket and struggles to work enough hours to keep her health insurance. The couple has run down Mr. Larson’s 401(k) retirement plan from $240,000 to almost nothing. Early last year, he filed for bankruptcy.

In March, Mr. Larson found a $16.50-an-hour job at a hospital’s computer help desk through a technology staffing agency. The posting was for four months, with the possibility of becoming permanent. He worked for one day, then was fired when a background check turned up an eight-year-old misdemeanor conviction. Mr. Larson says he was charged with disorderly conduct after a run-in with his boss when he was working at the police department. “They’re getting too tough on the security,” he complains.

A few weeks ago Mr. Larson got a new posting as a help-desk consultant, paying $19 an hour, this time for up to six weeks. While he and his wife hope it lasts longer, they have learned not to get their hopes up. “Years ago, he’d say, `I found a job, it’s forever,’ ” says Ms. Larson. “Now you can’t think that way anymore.”

The jobs that Mr. Larson has cycled through have rarely offered much opportunity for advancement. The same is true at many health-care employers and others that are hiring in Milwaukee these days. Without formal classroom education and certification, employees can spend years stuck on the lower rungs of the job ladder, as Nikitha Williams, a 30-year-old nursing-home aide, has learned.

Ms. Williams’s father went to work at a gas station in Gary, Ind., out of high school. “He knew the job so well that when he became old enough to be a manager they instantly made him a manager,” recalls Ms. Williams’s mother, Debra Turner, who stayed at home and raised Nikitha.

Ms. Williams dreamed of becoming a high-school guidance counselor, but a pregnancy at age 18 ended that hope. She worked at McDonald’s, then sought a job in health care. “Everyone was saying, `CNA, they make good money,’ ” she recalls. A CNA, or certified nursing assistant, feeds, cleans, showers, dresses and escorts hospital patients or nursing-home residents. At least 75 hours of training is required.

She took a cleaning job at Bel Air Health Care Center, a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients in a northwest Milwaukee neighborhood that has become the center of the city’s black middle class. After a two-week training class, she graduated to a $10-an-hour CNA’s job. Five years later, she earns $11.05 an hour, just enough to keep up with inflation even though Bel Air workers have a Service Employees International Union contract. Last fall she moved near her parents in a heavily Hispanic south-side neighborhood so she can be close to her father and get her mother’s help looking after her three children. She drives a half-hour across town to be at work at 6 a.m.

The work is physically demanding: Patients are sometimes combative and nursing aides must help them get dressed and go to meals. Beds must be raised and lowered by hand-crank instead of push-button motor. Many patients are unable to talk, and Ms. Williams has learned to read their facial expressions to tell what they want. Many people who want to work in health care “don’t have the patience for that,” she says. Fewer than half of Bel Air’s CNAs stay more than a year, state records show.

Ms. Williams would like to become a licensed practical nurse, which involves administering basic medical care under the supervision of a doctor or registered nurse and pays $21 an hour. But as a single mother, she doesn’t have the time or money for part-time college courses needed to become an LPN and her employer won’t pay for them. Michael Koenigs, administrator at Bel Air, says the center doesn’t have the money for such training. The center depends on Medicare and Medicaid, which generally pay less than private insurers. “I feel like I’m in a dead-end job,” Ms. Williams says. “It’s like you’re stuck once you get there.”

Some hospitals and nursing homes do offer a chance for advancement, including Aurora Health Care, the big Milwaukee-based nonprofit with 13 hospitals, more than 100 clinics and 140 community pharmacies in eastern Wisconsin. But it’s not like the old industrial economy when employees made a good living doing the same job for 20 years and then retired, says Aurora’s chief executive, Ed Howe. “The economy we have now . . . is knowledge-based and so the rewards are different,” he says. Aurora’s thousands of CNAs typically earn $18,000 to $27,000 a year while about 700 doctors typically earn $240,000 and a handful make $700,000.

Aurora gives entry-level employees opportunities to advance through in-house training programs and tuition reimbursement, which is one reason Ms. Williams has sought work there, unsuccessfully. Demand for the programs significantly exceeds the available space.

Aurora’s Abraham Pacheco is one of the lucky ones. His parents were born in Puerto Rico. His mother never went to college, and works in a car dealership. His father didn’t finish high school and speaks little English, but worked several factory jobs before ending up on disability. “They had just enough to pay the bills and feed all four of us. They got by. We were happy,” says Mr. Pacheco, 20.

His first steady job after high school was earning $9.20 an hour in the kitchen at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. He had his eye on a better job: surgical technologist, a person who helps prepare operating rooms and assist during surgery. At Aurora, that pays $16.50 to $25.41 per hour.

To get the promotion, Mr. Pacheco needed formal training. When operations used just a clamp, retractor and a scalpel, surgical techs could quickly learn all they needed on the job. Now that they must work with surgical machines costing $1 million or more, they need formal training. Mr. Pacheco enrolled in college but was bored because the classes didn’t seem to have anything to do with his career.

Then he learned Aurora was training entry-level employees to become surgical technologists and, with federal assistance, paying them $10 an hour to attend the nine-month program. He graduated in December and now works in an operating room at St. Luke’s. Finishing an arterial graft, he displays the notes he took of the surgeon’s operating idiosyncrasies that he’ll use the next time. “I thank God I got this job,” he says.

Most entry-level workers won’t be so blessed, even at Aurora. There were 200 applications for the 20 spots in Aurora’s surgical-tech program.

Like many cities, Milwaukee suffers from an underperforming public school system. Wisconsin has tried harder than most states to give poor families an alternative: Parents can send children to suburban schools if space is available, or use state-funded vouchers to send their children to private school. But most poor Milwaukee children still attend the city’s public schools, where more than three-quarters of the nearly 100,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged. While academic performance has improved in recent years, high-school attendance and academic performance remain well below state averages.

Advanced education remains the most important escalator moving people into a higher income bracket, and efforts to expand access have had considerable success in Milwaukee. The proportion of Milwaukee-area workers with at least four years of college has risen to 27% in 2000 from 11% in 1970, according to Mr. Levine’s group at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, an increase that parallels the national trend. Many factory workers with only a high-school education have sent their children to college, and this has helped offset the impact of deindustrialization on income mobility.

Still, parental background makes a big difference. An American has a 62% chance of getting a bachelor’s degree if either parent did, but only a 19% chance if neither parent did, according to Bruce Sacerdote, a Dartmouth College economist. The figures are based on a database of 6,000 people that scholars have tracked for the past 26 years. That is one reason why Americans’ incomes are still linked to their parents’.

Stephen Wagner, 35, grew up in Burlington, Wis., a town of 10,000 about 35 miles from downtown Milwaukee. As the son of an ophthalmologist, “I grew up with medicine as a family dinner-table topic,” he says. His parents paid for his undergraduate education. After 10 years of additional study — two years of post-graduate education, four years in medical school and four years of internship and residency — he became an ophthalmologist himself.

Burlington’s excellent schools, well-preserved 19th-century buildings and relatively affordable housing have attracted a growing number of people who commute to Milwaukee. Dr. Wagner joined his father’s busy practice in the town, and his mother and wife, both university-trained nurses, work there, too. He and his wife, who are expecting their first child, are building a 4,000-square-foot house with a three-car garage in Burlington.

Dr. Wagner’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, grants some state high-school students a guaranteed spot in medical school provided they get a certain level of grades in college. Dr. Wagner, who helps review applicants, says that while many applicants come from farming and working-class families, more seem to have backgrounds like his own. “They come from families where they have physicians or attorneys as parents,” he says.

(See related letters: “Letters to the Editor: Why Do So Many of Us Travel a Hard Road?” — WSJ July 18, 2005)

Prison Record Looms Larger As an Obstacle to Advancement

By Greg Ip
672 words
22 June 2005
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)


In central Milwaukee and across the country, there’s a growing barrier to income mobility that has little to do with the decline of manufacturing: a criminal record. Tougher sentencing laws and more drug arrests have produced a skyrocketing prison population and a soaring number of job seekers burdened with a prison record.

Princeton University sociologist Bruce Western has found that 60% of black high-school dropouts in their early 30s nationally had a prison record in 1999, up from 17% in 1979. On average, a prison record reduces one’s annual income by 40%, he says.

Milwaukee native William Jones had run-ins with gangs in high school, joined the Marines and spent four years in prison in the early 1990s for involuntary manslaughter. Released in 1996 and required to remain in Indiana as a condition of his parole, he eventually got a job at TruGreen ChemLawn in South Bend selling lawn-care services. “I started to see myself in customer service. This was where I had natural skills. I enjoyed going to work,” he says. Between salary and commission, he made $13 an hour.

In 2002, after his parole ended, he returned to his hometown and applied for work at TruGreen ChemLawn in Milwaukee, disclosing his prison record. He was told the company didn’t hire felons, he recalls. “I said, `Well, your company hired me in South Bend. I worked there for three or four years.’ ” The reply: He should consider himself “lucky.”

Steve Bono, a spokesman for TruGreen’s parent, ServiceMaster Co. in Downers Grove, Ill., confirms that TruGreen generally does not hire an applicant with a felony conviction. Mr. Bono says he doesn’t know why Mr. Jones got hired in Indiana.

Wisconsin and many other states forbid discrimination on the basis of a prison record unless the crime is specific to the job in question. But it’s clearly a factor. Sociologist Devah Pager, now at Princeton, conducted an experiment in which college students posed as job applicants at Milwaukee employers. White students reporting no criminal record got called back for an interview or job offer 34% of the time but only 17% of those who said they did jail time for cocaine got called. Among blacks, the gap was wider: 14% without a criminal record were called back, but only 5% of those with a record.

Since returning to Milwaukee, Mr. Jones has delivered liquor to local bars, worked as a deckhand on a ferry and washed dishes. He was rejected for a job installing cable television and high-speed Internet because the installation company said its main client, Time Warner Cable, doesn’t permit contractors to send felons into its subscribers’ homes. Time Warner confirms that.

He recently landed an $8.70-an-hour job at the night shift at Wal-Mart, a few blocks from his home in northwest Milwaukee. Between shifts at Wal-Mart, he takes college courses in transportation logistics. He had explored courses in radiology, which involves taking and reading X-rays, but worried his record would be a problem. A Wisconsin law bars people with many types of felony convictions from working in health care.

Mr. Jones wants his son and daughter to avoid his mistakes. He and his wife scraped together enough money to send their daughter, now 17, to private school for a while but the cost forced them to return her to public school. “I know she’ll be fine,” he says. “She’s an honor-roll student. She wants to be an attorney.”

But his 15-year-old son has been arrested twice for armed robbery and is in a correctional institution for juveniles. He worries his son could face the same barriers he did. “It’s going to be hard out there, that’s what I’m trying to tell him. It’s devastating to have someone tell you: `We can’t hire felons.’ ”





Written by gregip

June 22, 2005 at 10:00 pm

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