WASHINGTON – Mark Dona knows well what the future holds for 1,100 employees of General Motor Corp.’s Broening Highway assembly plant who were told Tuesday that the 69-year-old factory was closing.
Since being laid off in June 2003 from his job as a lineman at Bethlehem Steel, Dona has struggled to make ends meet and to find a full-time job that pays nearly as well.
“I have two kids in college and house payments, so you kind of have to go where the money is,” Dona, 43, said of his part-time job at CarMax. “I’m retraining as a home inspector and it’s supposed to pay well, but who knows.”
Dona is being retrained under state and county programs like those that will soon be offered to GM workers. State data for the year ending June 30, 2004, shows that roughly 92 percent of retrained workers across the state landed new jobs, and their average “wage replacement,” or current versus previous salary, stood at 96 percent.
But officials familiar with the retraining programs say wage replacement for manufacturing jobs in particular often falls below that 96 percent average.
“Highly paid manufacturing workers offer a bigger challenge with wage replacement,” said Bill Bodie, an administrator with the state’s dislocated workers unit.
Dona is well aware of that challenge.
“We were paid an enormous amount of money to do what we did. But when you get into something else, it’s not even close,” he said.
Much of the difficulty in replacing the wages of these types of workers stems from “the overseas export of well-paying manufacturing jobs,” said Art Fifer, a project manager with Baltimore County’s Office of Employment and Training, who is helping retrain former Bethlehem Steel workers.
“Because of it (outsourcing), there are now fewer opportunities locally for those being laid off to transition into,” he said.
While workers with seniority could be expected to suffer a pay cut any time they moved to a new job, analysts said the lack of opportunities means laid-off workers will likely never get back to their old income levels, no matter how many years they put in.
“Manufacturing jobs pay a decent wage and provide very goods benefits,” said John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute. “You don’t hear about the same in the service sector. And outsourcing is creeping into the service industry, which means wages will be depressed.”
Laid-off GM workers will be able to get retraining from the state, but they remain worried, said Walter Plummer, president of the United Auto Workers Local 239 at the Broening Highway plant.
Plummer said many of his workers will be able to retire, but about 500 do not have that option.
“We hope they can transfer to other plants, but . . . they may have to retrain,” Plummer said.
And those who retrain may well face a pay cut in their new jobs, if Dona’s case and those of employees let go last year at toolmaker Black & Decker’s Easton plant are any indication.
“I’m making about $80 less per week,” said Ryshema Gibson, a 26-year-old single mother who took classes with the Upper Shore Workforce Investment Board after being let go last year by Black & Decker. “I have benefits, but the job is part-time.”
Like Gibson, Oxford resident Lisa Gray also retrained after being laid off by Black and Decker, which ultimately put almost 1,300 people out of work when it closed its Easton plant last year. Gray, too, has a job she likes with good benefits, but the pay is roughly $200 less per week than what she made as a material handler specialist co-coordinator at the Easton plant.
Most of the Black & Decker workers will not see wage replacement, said Carolyn Smith-Kennedy, a consultant with the investment board, who continues to work with former Black & Decker employees. She said that “a few of the roughly 400 who have retrained” have managed to acquire skills that could let them eventually make more than they previously earned.
Participation in retraining programs by Bethlehem Steel and Black & Decker workers was higher than usual due, in part, to aggressive promotion of the service, Bodie said. The two companies saw about one-third of their workers take advantage of the program, compared to about one-fifth who would typically participate.
Bodie would not speculate on the number of GM employees who might take part in retraining that is now being planned by the Baltimore City Workforce Investment Board.
“We’ll probably have more impact on (the 100 salaried) employees . . . that will not have the generous severance package that some of the union employees will get,” said Bodie.
Plummer said his local’s contract with GM means hourly employees will receive some level of pay and benefits through 2007, making the need for retraining less urgent.
Dona said he would reassure the Broening Highway workers that “there’s life after GM and Beth Steel,” but he would also caution them.
“Don’t let pride get in the way of it (retraining),” he said. “You’ve got a family to feed.”
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