Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
What happens to a community when a major employer leaves town? This is the basic premise of Janesville. The major employer is GM. The community is Janesville, Wisconsin. The book covers the years following the closing of the GM plant in December of 2008 to the present. I became unemployed a year after this particular GM plant closed. At the time, I lived close to another GM plant, this one in Wentzville, Missouri, that also shut down. I can remember driving by the huge plant and seeing the vacant parking lots and wondering about the thousands of workers who once worked there. Recessions are tough on everyone.
Author Amy Goldstein covers the story from numerous angles: the social workers, the community college educators, the politicians, the ancillary businesses, and, of course, the workers who lost their jobs. The story told here is not unique to Janesville. The same economic hardships have hit other communities that have relied on one or two large employers. This book offers a useful case study on what happens and what steps can and should be taken once that large employer picks up and leaves town.
The road forward for the many workers directly and indirectly affected by the plant closure contains many twists and turns. Some head to the community college to get degrees and training and other fields. Some try to scrape by hopping from one low wage job to another. Other’s decide to use their seniority to take jobs in other GM plants hundreds of miles away, leaving families behind as they chase the higher wages that a union job can provide. Very few of these individuals end up in a better place than before the plant closing. And there in lies the problem facing large swaths of our country. High paying manufacturing and industrial jobs are disappearing and unlikely to return, despite the promises of ill-advised politicians. The days when a person can make a good living with only a high school diploma are over. The truth is, pay is directly related to the difficulty and time it takes someone to become qualified for a certain position. If you can be replaced by someone with little to no experience, you’re unlikely to make a wage high enough to live on. There are many exceptions, but so, too, is the competition for these low skilled, high paying jobs.
There have been a number of very good books that have come out recently that provide a solid understanding of where things are now and how close we are to falling off a cliff. There is the book Evicted, which tackles the problem of housing affordability; American Pain, which covers the opioid epidemic; and Hillbilly Elegy, that looks at the deteriorating fortunes of coal country.
There are steps individuals and policy makers can take to avoid a future catastrophe. From an individual standpoint, it’s important that you find a profession that not only pays well but is something that you enjoy. When I have shared this viewpoint with my brother, who works in a high paying job in an oil refinery, his response has been that he works in an oil refinery so he can have the money to do what he enjoys. There is some validity in that argument, but why spend all of your working life chasing dollars? Why not get something more out of work than money? As for policy makers, it’s important that they spend heavily in innovation and technology. Look ahead and not backwards. There’s a reason why clean energy jobs out number dirty energy jobs such as coal, oil, and gas.