Blue-collar workers bear brunt of decline

By:  Robert Gavin, Globe Staff
Boston Globe

Ratio of job losses at depression level

The recession has been more like a depression for blue-collar workers, who are losing jobs much more quickly than the nation as a whole, according to a new report by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

The study estimated that the nation’s blue-collar industries have slashed one in six jobs since 2007, compared with about one in 20 for all industries, leaving scores of the unemployed competing for the rare job opening in construction or manufacturing, with many unlikely to work in those fields again.

Andrew Sum, the center’s director and author of the study, said the rate of job losses suffered by blue-collar workers matches the plunge in overall employment during the Great Depression, when the nation as a whole shed about one in six jobs.

“These guys used to be the backbone of our working middle class,’’ Sum said. “The really scary thing is they have no jobs to come back to.’’

In Massachusetts, there are 65 unemployed construction and 24 jobless manufacturing workers for each available position, according to the study - a grimmer picture than the nation as a whole. In professional occupations, the picture is very different, with just two job seekers for each job.

And for blue-collar workers, matters are expected to worsen. Employment in manufacturing and construction is projected to decline in Massachusetts at least through the end of 2010 and remain well below prerecession levels for years to come, according to the New England Economic Partnership, a nonprofit forecasting group.

Kevin Joyce, a 57-year-old union carpenter, has spent the past eight months calling about construction jobs and getting the same response: “I’ll take your name and put you on the list.’’ When he was laid off in May, Joyce thought he’d tackle a few renovation projects around his Boxford home until he found work. Now, with savings vanishing, the father of three is afraid to spend on building supplies.

“There’s nothing out there,’’ Joyce said. “I’ve been through cycles before and I know it eventually goes up. But I don’t know what it’s going to take this time.’’

Blue-collar workers have always been hard hit in recessions. In Massachusetts, some suffered even deeper job losses during the downturn of the early 1990s, when New England found itself at the epicenter of a real estate bust. Construction firms alone slashed one in three jobs then, compared with one in five in the current downturn; manufacturing lost at least one in six jobs.

But the impact on workers then was not as severe as it is now, said Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. Other parts of the country were growing, so construction workers could find jobs out of state. They could also find side work, doing small projects for friends and neighbors.

The global nature of this recession and the damage done to household budgets have wiped out those options, as nervous homeowners remain reluctant to spend. The unemployment rate among Erlich’s members is more than 25 percent, he said.

“When the global economy fell off a cliff, it basically landed on us,’’ Erlich said.

William Hernandez Sr., a union carpenter, was laid off a year ago. When he was between jobs in the past, he worked for a company that provided handyman services. But that company went out of business.

Hernandez, 38, the father of four, has visited construction sites, applied for handyman jobs, and even sought work detailing cars. No luck. He owes thousands of dollars to utilities and is falling behind on rent for his Quincy apartment.

“I have never been out of work this long,’’ said Hernandez. “I keep hoping. But I’ve put in so many applications.’’

Up to 70 percent of unemployed blue-collar workers have lost jobs permanently, meaning their old jobs won’t be there when the economy recovers, according to the NU center. Hundreds of thousands have given up looking for work and dropped out of the labor force.

The economic dislocation is straining worker training programs largely designed to address labor shortages, not massive numbers of unemployed workers. In Massachusetts, the number of people in dislocated worker programs is on track to nearly double from last year, when more than 8,000 were enrolled in the programs, according to the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Workers facing lengthy job searches need much more individualized attention and support, said Nancy Snyder, interim secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, adding the system needs to be retooled in other ways, too.

For example, she said, an older unemployed worker can’t afford to spend two years earning an associate’s degree to qualify for a health care job. A better approach might be on-the-job training, offering employers wage subsidies to hire people.

“The longer someone is unemployed, the more discouraged they get, and the harder it is to get a job,’’ said Snyder. “If we can get people in the workplace to demonstrate they are good, productive employees, it increases the chances of getting hired permanently.’’

Overall, said Sum, federal stimulus programs need to target job creation. In addition to wage subsidies, the federal government should provide tax credits to encourage firms to hire and fund public works projects to get blue-collar workers back on the job, he said. “We need to make sure the stimulus money creates jobs where all these unemployed people are,’’ Sum said. “We could lose them from the workforce forever.’’

Peter Eramo, 53, of Nashua, has been out of work for more than four months, after Jabil Circuit Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., shut its electronics manufacturing plant in Billerica.

Eramo, who has spent his entire career in manufacturing, isn’t ready to give up on the industry yet. He’s had a few interviews, but no offers.

“I might have to consider something else,’’ he said. “What that is, I’m not sure.’’