For blue-collar workers, change becomes a way of life

As a result of ever-increasing overseas trade, Elkhart County workers who planned for a life in manufacturing are finding themselves without job security, and in constant fear of being laid off.

Posted on Feb. 16, 2008 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Feb. 16, 2008 at 5:52 a.m.

By Kelli Yoder

Truth Staff

ELKHART -- As a result of ever-increasing overseas trade, Elkhart County workers who planned for a life in manufacturing are finding themselves without job security, and in constant fear of being laid off.

One Elkhart man, 48-year-old Frank Cataldo, has experienced three layoffs in the past 30 years. And his story isn't unusual.

But, as Cataldo can attest to, the government is trying to help through a program called Trade Adjustment Assistance. Many of the funds available through the program are used for training the participants for new employment opportunities.

"It's the most generous retraining program in the nation," said Lesley Faris. "Or, if there's one more generous I don't know about it."

And she would be the one to know. She works with the hundreds of Region 2 residents (Elkhart, Fulton, Kosciusko, Marshall and St. Joseph counties) who come through her office each year in her position as TAA coordinator for WorkOne, an employment aid resource in Elkhart.

TAA grew out of the Trade Expansion Act, begun in 1962. "Congress modifies it from time to time," Faris said.

Since 2002, the funds available have been capped at $220 million. A bill that could significantly expand the program is currently awaiting approval from the Senate. The assistance is, with few exceptions, reserved for those whose job loss was a result of growing trade with the countries that have free-trade agreements with the United States.

Cataldo visited Faris when he was laid off from a Gemeinhardt plant in 2005. Gemeinhardt, which makes student flutes and piccolos, cut around 150 workers over the five years Cataldo worked there. "They ended up sending the majority of their manufacturing to China," he said.

Cataldo graduated from high school knowing he wanted employment "along the lines of the manufacturing, blue-collar worker," he said.

But after three similar layoffs, "I realized that manufacturing in this country is, to say the least, declining -- and they're gearing up more towards a service industry environment."

Cataldo's wife has remained at her job, at a factory that manufactures musical instruments, but the risk that her employer will make a move similar to Gemeinhardt's is on their minds. "That's a constant concern," Cataldo said.

Faris said the region has yet to be hit hard. "This is obviously a manufacturing town," she said. "The RV companies aren't as affected by foreign competition yet."

It was with this information that Cataldo decided to pursue work in the RV industry. As the program requires, he used the resources available at WorkOne to research what type of job would best suit him. With a plan and goals in mind, he submitted his proposal for TAA funding and qualified to go to school for 24 months. He graduated from Ivy Tech with a technical certificate in marketing and RVST certification.

Without the TAA program, Cataldo said, "I'd hate to think about where I would be right now."

"I have a good start on a good education," he said. "And it's hopefully going to eventually open some doors for me."

But for right now, he's still looking. "Unfortunately, I haven't had a lot of luck," he said.

The program "has changed certain people's lives," Faris said. "Others still have difficulty finding jobs."

She attributes this to the growing requirements for bachelor's degrees. The most TAA can cover is an associate degree.

Cataldo believes his job outlook would be better with more education. "I still have the option of going back to school, but at this point in time that's financially not going to happen."

"Even as frustrating as it has been trying to find a job since then, this experience has been a great, great experience," he said.

Cataldo is clearly appreciative of TAA. But, he recognizes a larger problem. "Industry jobs created the middle class in this country," he said.

He remembers a time when an employer could expect to work for 20 to 25 years at the same job until retiring. "That dream is gone," and that's one thing, he said. "It's something else not to have that security anymore.

"If manufacturing jobs are going to continue to decline, there have to be programs in place that are going to help these workers transition to a stable income," Cataldo said, "and something that is going to reflect the level of income that they have grown accustomed to."

The country can continue to import more goods, but, he said, "If people here don't have the means with which to purchase them, it doesn't matter how cheap they are."

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