Workers in transition: In some of the hardest hit industries, the jobs may not be coming back

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MPR’s Annie Baxter reports on the negative impact that the economic downturn has had on various industries…and the hard choices it has left for those workers.

More than 150,000 jobs disappeared from Minnesota because of the recession. Job losses have gouged nearly every sector in the state's economy, but Minnesotans who swing a hammer got nailed especially hard. Some of them didn't see the blows coming, or realize how much they'd hurt.

Awarded:

2011 MNSPJ Page One Award, first place in Radio - Hard News Report category

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ANNIE BAXTER: Job losses have gouged nearly every sector in the state's economy, but Minnesotans who swing a hammer got nailed especially hard in the recession. Some of them didn't see the blows coming or realize how much they'd hurt.

TODD BJERSTEDT: The typical homebuilder is the eternal optimist.

ANNIE BAXTER: Todd Bjerstedt used to build luxury homes in suburban Woodbury.

TODD BJERSTEDT: You always think that next spring, or next fall, or next parade of homes things are going to turn around.

ANNIE BAXTER: As a home builder, Bjerstedt has been at the epicenter of the economic slowdown, which started earlier in Minnesota than the rest of the nation. MPR first introduced him to listeners in a 2007 documentary about the downturn. Bjerstedt had pumped thousands of dollars of personal savings into his struggling homebuilding business, only to see it fold. He manages to keep a sense of humor about his change of fortune.

TODD BJERSTEDT: We used to have a lot of things, including some savings. Everything fundamentally is gone. I mean, we consumed everything between trying to keep the business open as long as we could and then trying to keep our home as long as we could.

ANNIE BAXTER: Bjerstedt had overseen construction of the family's $700,000 home himself. But last fall, his family lost the struggle to keep their home out of foreclosure. Now, the Bjerstedts lease a town home in Hudson that's about a third the size of their old place.

SPEAKER 1: Did you see Antonio today?

OLIVIA BJERSTEDT: It's Andre, mother.

[LAUGHS]

SPEAKER 1: I can't keep them straight.

ANNIE BAXTER: Over dinner in their new digs, the social life of the Bjerstedts teenage daughter Olivia dominates conversation, not the upheaval of their lifestyle. Still, they often feel hemmed in by their new financial situation. It's not only the size of their living space that shrunk. In his new line of work as a remodeler, Todd Bjerstedt now pulls in about a third of his former income as a homebuilder.

TODD BJERSTEDT: When we wanted something before, it usually just appeared. And those days are behind us, I think, for a while anyway, and maybe forever.

ANNIE BAXTER: Bjerstedt still feels his future remains in construction despite his personal losses and the industry's. Roughly a quarter of all construction jobs have disappeared in Minnesota since the start of the recession. That's more than 30,000 jobs.

State officials predict the sector will keep shrinking for the rest of the year. That will force many construction workers to find jobs in other industries, but that requires retraining. Economists say if workers from shrinking industries don't get retrained, they'll be stuck with skills that are not high in demand, and businesses won't be able to find workers with the skills they need. State economist Tom Stinson says that could hamper an economic recovery.

TOM STINSON: That jobs mismatch problem is going to be a challenge for not just Minnesota, but for every state looking on out into the future.

ANNIE BAXTER: Leigh Elder starts up the tractor of a semi. He's in a truck driving class at a technical college in Winona.

LEIGH ELDER: The driving range in.

WALLY TULARE: Wherever. You're driving late.

LEIGH ELDER: OK

ANNIE BAXTER: He and his buddy Wally Tulare have enrolled here in an effort to steer away from manufacturing. Minnesota's factories have shed more than 40,000 jobs since the recession started. Elder is bobtailing, driving the tractor without the trailer. When he takes a turn hard, Tulare does a little back seat driving.

WALLY TULARE: Whoa, Leigh.

ANNIE BAXTER: Tulare and elder have both earned their livings as tool and die makers for the past 30-odd years, with more than two decades spent together at the same company in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They say they used to pull in salaries of about $50,000, but both men got laid off last fall. Wally Tulare is thrilled to launch a new career as a trucker and leave behind the insecurity of the manufacturing sector.

WALLY TULARE: I'm fully aware that some of those jobs that used to pay really well in manufacturing, they're gone and they're not coming back. They went overseas. There are people over there that are willing to work for them a whole bunch cheaper than we are.

ANNIE BAXTER: Tuition aside, Wally Tulare figures the move into trucking will cost him $15,000 a year in reduced pay. That's a typical problem. Many people who are laid off find their next job pays less than the position they were laid off from.

Experts say the resulting income loss suffered is one of the most damaging effects of the recession. But for Tulare, who's 52, the financial hits will be manageable. He has pensions from his manufacturing job and the military. His house is paid for and his kids are grown.

WALLY TULARE: I looked at this whole thing as just an awesome opportunity to start with a clean slate, a new career. I set on trucking because everything that people have is hauled by a truck.

ANNIE BAXTER: According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs driving big rigs should grow by 13% over the next decade. By contrast, the nation's factory sector is expected to shrink long term, even if it is one of the industries leading the recovery now. Wally Tulare's buddy, Leigh Elder, had also sought to leave manufacturing and embrace a new career in trucking. But he recently got an enticing offer doing tool and die work.

LEIGH ELDER: They're offering me more money than what I made on my last job. And they also add an extra week's vacation. And they were willing to wait until I finished the classroom part of the truck driving.

ANNIE BAXTER: At age 56, Leigh Elder has taken a deep breath and decided to accept that job and stay in manufacturing. Elder is reluctant to climb out of the big rig so quickly. But he figures if manufacturing burns him again, he now has a back up career in trucking.

LEIGH ELDER: Every day, I think I'm getting better at it and I hope I'm making the right decision.

SPEAKER 2: Hi.

TODD BJERSTEDT: Hey, Dani. How are you?

SPEAKER 2: Hi, there. Fine, fine.

TODD BJERSTEDT: Can we come in?

SPEAKER 2: Yeah, come on in.

ANNIE BAXTER: Todd Bjerstedt, the homebuilder, isn't as eager as the workers in Winona to exit his industry. He's tried to stay close to the construction business in his current work remodeling. At a recent visit with some customers, he leafs through a catalog with them.

TODD BJERSTEDT: What are you thinking for yours?

SPEAKER 2: I don't know.

TODD BJERSTEDT: You don't know.

SPEAKER 2: I'm not sure.

TODD BJERSTEDT: We're not sure where to start.

ANNIE BAXTER: At age 53, Bjerstedt doesn't know how he can start over. He has considered pursuing other careers outside of the housing industry, but he doesn't see ample opportunity. And retraining doesn't seem like a viable option.

TODD BJERSTEDT: I can't stop going to work to go to school. It's just not going to happen. And at my age, I can't afford to take a year or two off and borrow money even if we could, and then try and make that up in the future. So I don't see how that works.

STEVE HINE: From a public policy perspective, situations like that are the kind of situations that we need to deal with.

ANNIE BAXTER: Minnesota's chief labor market analyst, Steve Hine says the state needs to facilitate the training and transition for people like Bjerstedt to move into fields that are hiring. That helps ensure the state economy has the skills it needs. Minnesota's dislocated worker program does offer help with retraining, but not everyone in need is eligible.

Hine says it's a common problem for workers to feel like they can't afford to retrain. But he says that shouldn't be the case.

STEVE HINE: We need to make sure that that sort of transition is readily available and affordable.

TODD BJERSTEDT: Since Todd Bjerstedt doesn't think he has such options, he has other plans. He hopes to return to homebuilding once the market improves. Meanwhile, his family is trying to get used to their scaled back lifestyle. His 15-year-old daughter Olivia says all the tumult in her dad's career has changed her outlook.

OLIVIA BJERSTEDT: Before, I guess, I got things handed to me more. But now it's made me realize that not everything's just easy going.

ANNIE BAXTER: That may be true for the families of millions of American workers who have to find their way with skills for which demand has waned. Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio News.

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