High-Tech Dreams Dissipate For Furniture Workers Laid-off furniture factory workers in Lenoir, N.C., studied information technology with the hopes of landing a job at a new Google data center. But when their dreams of a job with Google didn't come true, they still found a way to stay employed.
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High-Tech Dreams Dissipate For Furniture Workers

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High-Tech Dreams Dissipate For Furniture Workers

High-Tech Dreams Dissipate For Furniture Workers

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

At a time when unemployment sits at 10 percent, many laid-off workers are looking to reinvent themselves. Yesterday, NPR's Frank Langfitt introduced us to former furniture workers in North Carolina. After they lost their jobs, they returned to school to retrain by studying information technology.

SIEGEL: The hope is to land work at a new Google data center. As one of them, Bill Curtis explained.

Mr. BILL Curtis (Correctional Officer, Western Youth Institution): Most of us right now are going to try 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.

SIEGEL: Frank Langfitt followed Curtis and other workers in North Carolina for more than two years. Today he reveals who got a job at Google and who didn't.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Mr. CURTIS: Hush.

FRANK LANGFITT: Bill Curtis lives down a dirt road in Lenoir, North Carolina. At age 53, he just finished a technology program at the community college. It was designed, in part, to help laid-off furniture workers like him apply to Google. I caught up with Curtis at the end of 2007, just before his final job interview. He rummaged through his closet hunting for the right jacket.

Mr. CURTIS: Let me look back here in the archives.

LANGFITT: What do you think your chances are of getting a job at Google?

Mr. CURTIS: I think my chances are pretty good. I mean, I'm not a shoe-in, but doggone, I don't know what else I can do to get ready. And we're going to make good associates for Google if we're hired. And I think they're going to be amazed to see what some ex-furniture workers can do when we're given the opportunity.

LANGFITT: The interviews with Google managers stretched for several hours. Curtis stumbled over some software questions. At the college, Curtis only had six weeks of training on Linux, the operating system Google uses. Afterwards, he was drained, but hopeful.

Mr. CURTIS: I thought I had a pretty good shot. Two weeks later, I got what I called the email of death saying: We can't use you right now.

LANGFITT: After nearly three years of schooling and retraining, Bill Curtis' dream was over. He couldn't find another IT job.

(Soundbite of prison)

LANGFITT: Today, he works as a corrections officer at the Western Youth Institution. It's a prison in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Recently, I spent a morning with him there.

Unidentified Woman #1: And you're going to have task number one.

Mr. CURTIS: Okay.

LANGFITT: The work is more dangerous than Curtis' old job, cutting cloth for Broyhill sofas. I met an officer with a purple bruise over his eye, an inmate had punched him the night before.

Well, I hope that eye is feeling better.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, yeah. It'll get better.

Mr. CURTIS: Sometimes a correction officer gets punched or we have to get in the fray, so, that's part of the job.

LANGFITT: The inmates are mostly teenagers and include murderers. But, given the economy, Curtis is grateful for the work � even if it comes in 12-hour shifts. Curtis works here three to four days a week earning $26,000 annually. That's not enough to cover his bills. Curtis' wife, Janet, also lost her furniture job to the recession this year, so Bill works several more days a week at Wal-Mart.

(Soundbite of beeping)

LANGFITT: He clocks in with a swipe of a plastic card. Curtis earns about $9 an hour. That's $6 an hour less than he made in furniture. Curtis works in sporting goods, but helps out wherever he can.

Mr. CURTIS: What can I do for you?

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, I need some gallons of paint.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURTIS: Well, let's walk over here and I'll fix you some paint.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.

LANGFITT: Curtis' furniture job was one of more than 6,000 that disappeared this decade from Caldwell County, about an hour's drive northwest of Charlotte. Companies sent the work to China to save money. Wal-Mart has become a safety net for former furniture workers. Curtis is one of 30 employed here. He knows Wal-Mart is built on the same low-cost strategy that destroyed his job, but Curtis mostly keeps that to himself.

Mr. CURTIS: It was just a few weeks ago, one lady, she put her hands on her hips and kind of huffed and said, is there nothing in this store made in American anymore? And I said, well, lady, you need to call corporate office and talk to them.

LANGFITT: Hello, Margo.


LANGFITT: How are you? It's good to see you.

Ms. RICE: It's good seeing you. How are you doing?

LANGFITT: I'm doing all right.

I first met Margo Rice around the same time I met Bill Curtis in 2007. She, too, was laid off from furniture work and was studying with Curtis in the IT program. She didn't get a job at Google either. But she's turned some of her new skills into a new career. Rice is now back at the college setting up TV feeds for long-distance classes. Today, she's helping an instructor teach English to students in Brazil. The students are complaining about an echo.

Ms. RICE: Is there anything we can do? �Cause they said they couldn't fix anything on their side.

Unidentified Man #2: Tell them the best thing they can do is just to mic off until they have a question. Then that should solve the problem.

Ms. RICE: Talk into the microphone so I can see if I can hear you.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, better.

Ms. RICE: Okay.

LANGFITT: Rice's new technology job pays about $5,000 less than her old factory one. But she likes it a lot better because it encourages her to think. Most laid-off furniture workers have not been so lucky.

What are people doing? And how are you doing compared to them, do you think?

Mr. DERRICK LINGLE (Data Technician, Google): I'm doing fantastic compared to them. Some are coming back to school to get their GED. Most of them are drawing unemployment. They don't know what to do.

LANGFITT: Studies show retraining has limited effectiveness, and older workers have a much harder time finding new jobs.

(Soundbite of beeping)

LANGFITT: Derrick Lingle was one of Margo Rice's classmates in the IT program, and at 23, young enough to be her son. Lingle knew a lot about Linux, the operating system Google favors. Where Rice struggled with interview questions, Lingle had answers. Earlier this year, I rode with him to his new job as a data technician at Google. He bought this silver Mitsubishi Eclipse to celebrate.

Mr. LINGLE: One thing I added in this car was the sunroof, because I've always wanted a car with a sunroof.

LANGFITT: How do you like the car?

Mr. LINGLE: Yeah, I'm ecstatic about it.

(Soundbite of ping pong)

LANGFITT: Life at Google is nothing like a furniture factory. Many employees are in their 20s and 30s. Breaks include playing ping pong and blasting video game zombies on a flat-screen TV.

(Soundbite of a video game)

LANGFITT: The job is high-pressure and fast-paced. Lingle races around thousands of humming servers, fixing those that have gone down. The servers handle everything from searches of Google Maps to YouTube.

Mr. LINGLE: I think I repaired over 60 of them one day before.

LANGFITT: Do you ever have to run?

Mr. LINGLE: Yeah. I mean, we even have scooters out there on the floor to help us get from spot to spot.

LANGFITT: Google, a highly secretive company, won't say what Lingle earns, but the benefits at Google go beyond a paycheck. The company has flown Lingle out to its Silicon Valley campus. For a guy who didn't travel much beyond Charlotte, the trip opened up a new world.

Mr. LINGLE: When you get out there, you see that, hey, there is this possibility. There are other opportunities. Even if you decide to leave Google at a later time, there are all these other companies out there. I mean, just being able to know that there's more, I mean, it's eye-opening.

LANGFITT: I asked Lingle where he might like to work some day. His answers included Ireland and Belgium. In the end, Bill Curtis and Margo Rice weren't surprised Derrick Lingle got the job they so wanted. Curtis says Lingle succeeded because he's young and tech-savvy.

Mr. CURTIS: They can do things on the computer. They'll sit there for hours, look like zombies playing video games. But they're just more technology oriented.

LANGFITT: And how do you compete against kids like that?

Mr. CURTIS: At my age, you can't. And, I mean, I try to do the best I can do, what I'm familiar and educated with. But they've got the hands-on that I never had.

LANGFITT: Bill Curtis is now 55. If he's bitter about losing out on the Google job, he won't say. Curtis says he'll keep working at the prison and Wal-Mart � seven days a week � for as long as he has to. Given the state of the job market, that could be awhile.

Mr. CURTIS: Sometimes you get really, really tired. When you pull in the driveway and you just turn the ignition off, you, oh, I'm home. And your feet feel like lead, but you just suck it up and come on in and go. That's the American way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: Tomorrow: The Chinese way. Chinese workers now manufacture the furniture Bill Curtis and tens of thousands of Americans once made. On Friday, we travel to China to meet them.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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