Can You Tell Me Where My Job Is? And While You’re At It, Where’s My American Dream?

When these guys get on the boob tube and say there’s jobs out there, you just gotta go out there and get them, it makes me want to go out there and grab them by the throat and say, “Where? Where are the jobs at?”

–Robert Boyer, As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads, Washington Post, September 20, 2004

If Boyer seems like an angry person, perhaps he will be forgiven once you hear his story, an all-too-familiar one these days: Plant electrician at a circuit board factory in Virginia for four decades, retrained in computers when the plant closed, but now working at Home Depot for $11.50 an hour. Boyer is one of millions who used to enjoy a middle class lifestyle, but now find that way of life is gone forever, at an age when most are ready to retire and enjoy the fruits of their decades of hard labor. The American Dream is disappearing, but does anybody care?

The rules for workers without an education used to be pretty simple. Find a good stable manufacturing job (unionized of course), work hard, keep your nose clean, and you could count on lifetime job security and a pension. Millions of Americans bought homes, raised families, and anchored themselves in communities throughout America based on this premise. Perhaps they weren’t wealthy, but they and their families could live a comfortable and secure life on what they made. And they could safely retire with a pension and health care benefits, which along with social security would be enough for them to live on for the rest of their lives. There was an alternative set of rules for those who got a college education: that their education would be enough to guarantee them a middle-class job, so they didn’t have to compete for the unskilled labor positions or worry about lengthy unemployment. It all sounds pretty reasonable, but for an increasing number of individuals, it simply isn’t true anymore.

Several key statistics published in the Washington Post article are telling:

  • There are now about as many temporary, on-call or contract workers in the United States as there are members of labor unions.
  • Of the 2.7 million jobs lost during and after the recession in 2001, the vast majority have been restructured out of existence.
  • In 2001, the top 20 percent of households for the first time raked in more than half of all income, while the share earned by those in the middle was the lowest in nearly 50 years.
  • In 1969, two categories of jobs — blue-collar and administrative support — together accounted for 56 percent of U.S. workers. Thirty years later the share was just 39 percent.

What’s a worker to do? What kind of company is going to give them the stability they crave? The real answer is that nobody seems to know right now. One expert analyst interviewed by the Washington Post, Lori G. Kletzer, an economics professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, responded:

We don’t know what the next big thing will be. When the manufacturing jobs were going away, we could tell people to look for tech jobs. But now the tech jobs are moving away, too. What’s the comparative advantage that America retains? We don’t have the answer to that. It gives us a very insecure feeling.

One oft-repeated mantra is that the solution lies in small businesses. Edmund Andrews of the New York Times notes, “For nearly 20 years now, political leaders of all stripes have taken it as gospel truth that small companies are responsible for about two-thirds of all new jobs created in the United States.” (See Where Do the Jobs Come From?) But there’s gospel truth and then there’s truth, and the answer appears to lie somewhere in between. Here’s what we know is true:

  • Fast-growing young companies — from up-start retailers to Internet stars like Google — account for a very large part of employment growth.
  • There is also evidence, though not definitive, that small companies have shed fewer workers over the last four years than large corporations.
  • Small companies and big corporations were all shedding jobs from 2001 through most of 2003, and they are still cautious about hiring.
  • Overall, the percentage of people who work at small companies has remained roughly constant over the last decade, which would seem at odds with an economy where small companies account for the vast bulk of new jobs.
  • Employment at smaller companies actually climbed more slowly than at large corporations between 1990 and 2001, the most recent year for which data is available.

According to one expert studying the issue closely, Zoltan J. Acs, dean of the University of Baltimore’s Merrick School of Business, “The key issue isn’t the size of the company but its age.” Job creation comes from what has been described as “gazelle” companies — young enterprises with pioneering ideas that quickly grow into big companies. A company like Google, which did not exist 10 years ago, already shows up in government statistics as a large corporation. (Wouldn’t we all have loved to have been on the ground floor there, or in the early days of Microsoft, or similar mega-enterprise that started with one or a few smart people who are now millionaires or billionaires.)

Small businesses also have their downside when it comes to job creation, however: many don’t make it. Only about half of new companies survive at least four years, according to the Small Business Administration. Last year, 584,800 businesses closed shop, compared with 572,900 that started up. (See If Failure Is Normal, How Do Workers Fare? (an article featuring the Workplace Fairness web site)) “And if the bottom drops out, workers for defunct small businesses may find themselves with unpaid wages and fewer protections than workers for big failed companies.” Another real problem is health benefits: small businesses have been cutting back on health insurance benefits far more than large corporations. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 63 percent of companies with fewer than 200 employees offered health insurance benefits, compared with 99 percent of larger companies.

You may be wondering what you can do about these massive societal trends. Is the job situation for American workers completely bleak? Here are a few rays of hope:

Realistically assist your career future: Scott Clark, another worker at the failed circuit board factory, decided to start working as an independent courier. He reasoned: “At least the work’s not going anywhere. A real person in America has to drive American roads to get things from one place to another. There’s security in that. ” (See As Income Gap Widens, Uncertainty Spreads.) If you feel your employer’s business is vulnerable, experts advise, “Approach your boss — try to ask at the highest level — about what’s really going on,” so you can conserve cash and look for new work. (See If Failure Is Normal, How Do Workers Fare?

Educate Yourself: Wondering where the jobs are going? One organization is keeping track for you: Working America. Their Job Tracker tells you which organizations are shipping jobs overseas. If your company is already exporting certain functions, it pays to be sure that what you do for them won’t be the next import to India or China. And even if your company isn’t currently exporting jobs, you certainly can make decisions as a consumer based on a company’s outsourcing practices.

Contact Your Member of Congress: One proposal currently before Congress that clearly affects the middle-class way of life is the Administration’s overtime proposal. The right to overtime pay is one that has enabled many people to have more comfortable lives than they would have otherwise, boosting the pay of some jobs to make them livable. The obligation to pay overtime for hours worked over 40 in a week also acts as a brake on employers, giving workers more time to spend with their families and be active in their communities. It keeps more people employed by spreading the work out among more people. If you want to tell Congress what you think about this overtime proposal, which went into effect in August, here’s a quick and easy way to do so. Protect Your Right to Overtime Pay

Vote: You’ve probably heard by now that we have an election coming up before long. Whether it’s selecting a candidate for President or Mayor, it’s important to take a look at a candidate’s record when it comes to jobs. What plan does he or she have to preserve jobs, health-care benefits, and education so that you and your children can hold onto the American Dream? If you’re not registered to vote, deadlines in many states are coming up soon, so act now to make sure you’re registered by the deadline. You can register through the Workplace Fairness web site by clicking here: Register to Vote If you’re already registered, that’s great! But where will you be on Election Day? If there’s even a remote chance you won’t have time to make it to the polls, then you should look into voting an absentee ballot (if this is allowed by the laws of your state.) And if you can spare the day, there are many worthy organizations looking for election-day volunteers. If you’re a lawyer, you can even be trained in election law for poll-watching, to make sure that every vote counts in this sure-to-be-close election.

If you care about these issues, you cannot sit on the sidelines. All American workers must take an active role in determining their future course, to preserve the dreams they have nurtured for generations.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.