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During the past week, NPR has been reporting on the growing income gap in America. Economists say one big reason for the widening divide is the steady loss of manufacturing jobs. As more and more U.S. companies move factory jobs overseas, people who lack skills and education have trouble making a decent living. When the Carrier Air Conditioning Company shut down its Syracuse, New York plant in 2004, 1,200 jobs were lost. The current financial state of the laid off workers depends on their skills, age and degree of determination. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: Tim Shepherdson(ph) stands in a windswept parking lot on a winter evening and stares across the highway at the massive old Carrier plant. In the two and a half years since he left the plant, he's hardly ever come back here. Instead he's tried hard to sever his ties to the company. Shepherdson even threw out the certificate year and for 25 years of service.
Mr. TIM SHEPHERDSON (Former Carrier Employee): I think of how proud I used to be to come here. You know, my grandfather used to talk about, oh, someday, Timmy, you're going to work at Carrier, and he retired from here. And you know, my dad retired from here. So it's sad for me.
ZARROLI: When Shepherdson left Carrier, he decided to go to community college and study electrical engineering technology. It was a field he thought would guarantee him a good career. But he soon learned that his Associates Degree didn't count for much with employers.
Mr. SHEPHERDSON: Basically I was told I didn't have enough experience or enough schooling to get into electrical engineering technology or anything based in that.
ZARROLI: Now Shepherdson could go back to school, but he needs to pay the bills. So he's taken a job at a manufacturing plant in quality control. That's the same thing he did at Carrier, but his new job pays about a third of what he made before. Carrier gave workers lots of overtime, and annual incomes of $80,000 were common. Of the 50 or so Carrier workers interviewed for this story, no one knew anyone who makes that much money today. Lenore Seeley(ph), who heads a federally funded job center called Central New York Works, says manufacturing jobs like that are hard to find in Syracuse these days.
Ms. LENORE SEELEY (Central New York Works): Work isn't what it used to be. The number of jobs where you can support a family and have a full benefit package on just a high school education, for example, those jobs are flat right now.
ZARROLI: That's not to say there aren't jobs in Syracuse. The unemployment rate is a healthy 4.1 percent. But the biggest employers are universities and hospitals. And for unskilled workers, the pay is pretty dismal.
Mr. CHUCK BECKER (Former Carrier Employee): If you want to work for eight bucks an hour, I suppose it's okay. But other than that, there's so many people looking for jobs that pay more than that.
ZARROLI: Chuck Becker took retirement when he left Carrier. But at 57, he doesn't yet qualify for Medicare, so he's still on the Carrier health insurance plan. It costs more than $400 a month, so Becker needs to work.
Mr. BECKER: Hey Jim, Chuck Becker. How you doing?
ZARROLI: Today he calls a man he knows at an overnight delivery company. He's heard there's a job that pays $15 an hour.
Mr. BECKER: Okay. Because I was just curious what was - you know, if you'd found anything out. So - but if you could help me, I'd appreciate it.
ZARROLI: Becker was also up for a job with the Transportation Security Administration, but he failed the physical because of poor hearing. Becker believes his age has hurt him in the job market. He was told as much by a personnel officer when he applied for a job at a big company.
Mr. BECKER: She said, I'll tell you - I shouldn't tell you this but I'm going to. Your age and whatever, they'll find a way to give it to somebody else a little younger. She says there's one job, there will be at least 50 people here trying to get it, because it pays more than eight, nine bucks an hour.
ZARROLI: For those who hope to make a decent living, the challenge has been to remake themselves. Carrier provided tuition money to laid off employees who wanted to start a new career. Some took advantage of the offer, but it hasn't always worked out. Larry Pedeswick(ph) is a wiry ex-Marine who wears his hair in a ponytail. After leaving Carrier he went to truck driving school. But he has a felony on his record for beating up his daughter's boyfriend a few years ago and so a lot of companies won't hire him. Already past 50, he had to take a job loading enormous tires onto flatbed trucks and delivering them around the state.
Mr. LARRY PEDESWICK (Former Carrier Employee): You know, just too many hours. I was going to get killed or get tagged with a bunch of tickets. I was always over hours, over weight, and under-slept, and it wasn't going to last. Something was going to happen. So I got out of there.
ZARROLI: Pedeswick could work as a long haul truck driver, but at 52 he's reluctant to leave his family for long periods and he doesn't want to move. Not long ago he was watching a TV news report about Carrier. He got so mad he punched a hole in the wall of his den. For Carrier workers who have made it, adaptability has been important; so has family support.
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ZARROLI: Dale Carpenter has become a surgical technologist at St. Josephs Hospital in Syracuse. One recent afternoon he stood in his scrubs in the surgical ward talking about the changes in his life.
Mr. DALE CARPENTER (Former Carrier Employee): You know, I mean I went from working with grease and machining metals to with people, which is much better - much better. I enjoy it.
ZARROLI: Carpenter used Carrier's tuition assistance program to return to school.
Mr. CARPENTER: It was tough. It was hard. I had to study all day long and all weekend long. Driving down the road, using flash cards. My wife was driving and my daughter quizzing me. It was hard.
ZARROLI: But Carpenter had several things going for him. Still in his late 30s, he was young enough to start over. His wife has a good job in sales. Unlike a lot of Carrier workers who bought boats and second homes when the money was good, he and his wife never lived beyond their means. So going to school wasn't the huge financial imposition it was for others. Today, Carpenter earns less than he made at Carrier, but he has more time with his family. He wants to return to school to become a physician's assistant.
Mr. CARPENTER: They hand you a silver platter on life. Here you go. Here's a second shot, run with it. I did what I could with it. You don't get that often.
ZARROLI: Something else also seems to separate Carpenter from a lot of Carrier workers. Carpenter made a lot of money at Carrier, but he always felt destined for something better. That made him push himself when the going got tough. For many others, Carrier was the best job they ever expected to find, and they've had trouble imagining a new place for themselves in an economy that no longer really values what they have to offer. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
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