MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

We begin this hour with the recession and with a number: two million. That's how many manufacturing jobs have disappeared since the recession started. That number tells us many things about our economy and how it's changing. But there is one thing it can't tell us and that's what those many Americans did the day after they lost their jobs, when they woke up unemployed and in many cases with skills that fewer and fewer businesses need. As jobs change, can workers adapt?

BLOCK: Frank Langfitt, NPR's labor reporter, set out to answer that question two years ago. He traveled to Lenoir, a town in North Carolina. Thousands there had lost their furniture-making jobs to China. A brave few returned to school to study information technology with this ambitious goal: to leap into the knowledge economy and land a job at Google. This is their story.

(Soundbite of sawing)

FRANK LANGFITT: That was once the sound of Lenoir. It's a town of about 18,000 in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and home to famous names such as Broyhill. For years, Lenoir called itself the furniture capital of the South. But in the past decade the city and surrounding Caldwell County have lost two-thirds of their furniture jobs, altogether, more than 6,000. One of those jobs belonged to this man.

Mr. BILL CURTIS: I'm Bill Curtis. I'm the son of James and Margaret Curtis. I live in Lenoir, North Carolina.

LANGFITT: Curtis spent three decades cutting cloth for Broyhill sofas. When the company laid him off a few years ago, it tore him up.

Mr. CURTIS: The first two or three weeks is a sense of guilt, like you've done something wrong. And it takes about a month to figure out - I didn't do anything wrong. That they just decided to send the work elsewhere. And it was, after that, a feeling of betrayal.

LANGFITT: But instead of dwelling on the past, Curtis was determined to change. Curtis is a big bear of a man with a bushy white moustache. In his early 50s, he enrolled in Caldwell Community College to study information technology. Then something extraordinary happened.

(Soundbite of truck backing up)

LANGFITT: Google began building a data center in Lenoir. Using the same electric grid that once powered furniture factories, the new Google facility would handle everything from Gmail messages to YouTube searches and it would create more than 200 jobs.

(Soundbite of applause)

LANGFITT: During a luncheon at the local country club, Google executive Andy Johnson described what it would be like to work there.

Mr. ANDY JOHNSON (Executive, Google): There's, you know, pool tables, ping pong tables, foosball. We serve food - free food - to the employees. There's free snacks and drinks all day. It's a really fun place to work. We try to keep it that way with a lot of fun things.

LANGFITT: To Bill Curtis, that sounded like heaven.

Mr. CURTIS: Most of us right now are going to try to get a job with Google, which I think right now, from what I've been able to find out, is one of the better companies in the country to work for. So, maybe we can hit a home run and do something.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

(Soundbite of furniture dumping)

Ms. MARGO RICE: Hey guys, Margo, how are you?

LANGFITT: Fine. How are you? Nice to meet you.

Ms. RICE: Fine. Come on in the house.

LANGFITT: I met Margo Rice around the same time I met Bill Curtis in 2007. She is a fellow classmate at the college and a former furniture worker. Rice is a burly woman who favors sweatshirts and her Honda motorcycle. She says Google's arrival isn't just about new jobs. It's about changing the thinking in her hometown.

Ms. RICE: I like their attitude. I like their openness. It's totally different from the mindset here in Caldwell County.

LANGFITT: What's the attitude in Caldwell County?

Ms. RICE: Closed-minded. I was grown up to where you did what you were told and you weren't supposed to ask any questions.

LANGFITT: Caldwell Community College's IT program prepares students to apply to Google, particularly former furniture workers like Rice. But Rice hadn't been to school since the '70s.

Ms. RICE: It was rough. It really was because a lot of the students at Caldwell were coming out of high school. So, they are still knowing things. I had to take English all over and had to write papers.

LANGFITT: Rice knew how to send e-mail and browse the Web. But that was it. At the college, she and fellow students learned how to dismantle hard drives.

Ms. RICE: I'm back to screwing it up. That's the wrong one. Which ones go in there?

LANGFITT: Answered questions like this.

Unidentified Man #1: What's the difference between hyper-threaded and hyper-transport?

LANGFITT: And grill each other on terminology.

Unidentified Man #2: Like http. You've heard of that? That's the beginning of every Web page. It's a hypertext proto - hypertext transmission protocol.

LANGFITT: Former furniture workers weren't the only ones in class. There were also children of furniture workers, like Derrick Lingle. Lingle is 20 years old and had been studying computers at the school. He also worked part time in a restaurant earning 2.50 an hour plus tips. I spoke with him at another restaurant downtown. He said his mother, Shelby, had worked for decades in furniture.

Mr. DERRICK LINGLE: She basically said, you're not going into furniture. I'm not going to let you have that kind of life that I've had, because it's a grueling job. I mean, she comes home and she will be dirty from her hands to her feet. So, she didn't want that kind of job for me because she knew I could do better.

LANGFITT: Derrick began tinkering with computers at age eight. His aunt Sheila fixed them as a hobby.

Mr. LINGLE: She basically sat down with me and described what she was doing. And that was back in the days of Windows 98. But even as a younger child, I would get into trouble by taking my mom's alarm clock apart. She wasn't too happy about that at the time because that's what she needed to get up in the morning with.

LANGFITT: As classes wound out, this became clear. Curtis, Rice and Lingle would compete with fellow students for a small number of jobs at Google. Darlene Richardson, one of their teachers, did not like the odds.

Professor DARLENE RICHARDSON (Web Design, Caldwell Community College): My heart breaks for them, you know. They need a job and they're very dedicated, you know. And I want them to get a job over there. But I'm worried. I don't believe there's enough jobs for all of them.

LANGFITT: Bill Curtis worried, too. He'd spent nearly three years retraining. Google offered a way out of furniture's dead end.

Mr. CURTIS: I would be bitterly disappointed if I don't find a job in the IT field somewhere.

(Soundbite of music)

LANGFITT: Caldwell Community's IT Institute graduated its first class in the fall of 2007. The students - about 40 in all - wore khakis and blue T-shirts with the program's insignia.

Unidentified Man #4: Bill Curtis.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #4: Derrick Lingle.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #4: Margo Rice.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #4: I now pronounce you proud graduates. Let's hear for the graduates.

(Soundbite of applause)

LANGFITT: The students drifted out of the auditorium full of hope and anxiety. Interviews with Google were just a couple of months away. Tomorrow, who got a job with Google and who didn't.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: If you changed careers late in life, we'd like to hear why and how you did it. Just send an e-mail to reinvent@npr.org. And be sure to include a picture of the new you. Your stories will live on the NPR Web site and may help others who are in the process of making a career change late in life. Once again, send your stories and pictures to reinvent@npr.org.

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