by Jenn Lloyd '11
GALESBURG - Maytag was the go-to place for employment in Galesburg for so many years that its closing left residents feeling that neither they nor their children would ever find adequate work again.
However, some former workers have found that the key to having a successful career is to change their idea of what work life entails before joining the working world.
Data from the Maytag Employees in Transition Survey shows that 70 percent of former factory workers at the Maytag Refrigeration Plant who were surveyed had only a high school education.
"There aren't as many opportunities to go straight from high school to a high paying job anymore," said Ron Lair, 51, now of Alexis.
Lair worked at Maytag for 27 years, starting when he was 18 and right out of high school. But he recognizes that the path he took is disappearing. "There aren't near as many jobs," he said, "so basically I think achieving the "American Dream" would take a lot more education than when I started out."
The closing of Maytag and the trend of factories going offshore has been devastating. Of the 121 people who answered this particular survey question, 41 percent said they feel they will never recover from the loss of their Maytag job.
In order to be successful, the children of Maytag workers will likely have to pursue different opportunities than previous generations. Education professionals in Galesburg, such as District 205 leaders Joel Estes and Barry Swanson, say post-high school education is one possibility. Some ex-Maytag workers now echo this sentiment.
An educational path
One of the difficulties facing Galesburg after Maytag's departure is that both education and the educational path people take may have to change. This may mean considering high school as not the end of education. Seventy-one percent of Maytag workers surveyed whose highest level of education was the 12th grade had children that did not go to college.
Swanson, a District 205 Board member, believes it has been hard to bring in new industries to Galesburg. Education is the future, he said, because the educated youth can create new economic opportunities. He feels that if educational professionals in the Galesburg school districts make the educational system as strong as they can the graduates will also be able to attract business from other states.
When Swanson's father-in-law was working at Admiral, which owned the refrigeration plant before Maytag, children knew they could get a high school diploma and go straight to that plant. "There was always that safety net there for those sorts of jobs, which are good jobs. They paid well. They were in excess of minimum wage," Swanson said.
Joel Estes, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in District 205, said there has been a large increase in low-income students attending district schools since Maytag's closing. He does not claim to know whether this is solely attributable to Maytag closing, but believes it is probably due to a combination of Maytag closing, more low-income families moving here than in the past and the recession.
The school district had a low-income student percentage of 42 percent in 2002 when Maytag announced it would close. For many years leading up to the 2004 closing the amount of low-income students stayed at 42 percent. The year right after Maytag closed, the percentage of students in low income households went from 42 percent to 47 percent.
This past year, low-income students accounted for 59 percent of the student body. Estes said the district estimates this current year it will be around the mid-60 percent range. "Poverty has increased drastically in the six years since Maytag closed," Estes said.
High school just a minimum
Estes agrees with Swanson that education is Galesburg's future. "I think that for high school graduates they need to look at that as just a minimum, just a stepping stone to the next level of education. All of us need to think of education as a life-long, ongoing endeavor."
Swanson thinks a lot of the motivation to graduate and achieve can be created by families. "My feeling is that so much of that really begins in a home. Those sorts of motivations and dreams and goals, so much of that is promoted within a home. There are kids that certainly don't have that support at home and are still able to be successful. They've driven themselves for a variety of reasons," said Swanson.
Mark Good, 48, now of St. Louis, worked at Maytag for 16 years starting at the age of 26. He'd already graduated from high school, gone to college, been in the military and worked at another business.
"Jobs are harder to come by for the unskilled worker," he said. "There aren't as many jobs out there and the pay is not as good for the unskilled worker anymore." Good sees the future in jobs in the medical and legal fields, both of which require higher education.
Both Sue Sallo, 56, of Galesburg, who worked at Maytag for 31 years starting at age 18, and Good have children in college. Good feels education is their only chance for getting a successful job now. Sallo feels college and the military are the main options for getting a job above minimum wage.
Everyone wants to achieve a form of the "American Dream" and wants the same for his or her children, yet the survey showed that many people tie what they think their children can achieve to the difficulties they are facing themselves, and indeed believe the "American Dream" is out of reach for all factory workers.
Half of the former Maytag workers who say they strongly agree the "American Dream" is out of reach for manufacturing workers in the U.S. also strongly agree the "American Dream" is out of reach for their children as well. Conversely, 91 percent of those who strongly agree their children cannot reach the "American Dream" also strongly agree it is out of reach for factory workers in the U.S.
Fifty-four percent of workers who agree the "American Dream" is out of reach for their children agree it is also out of their own reach, and 61 percent of those who strongly agree it is out of reach for their children strongly agree it is also out of their reach.
Despite these daunting results, survey respondents still wish their children to be monetarily successful, often even more so then they are. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents who said they grew up in the middle class think their children will also be in the middle class, and 49 percent who grew up in the lower-middle class think their children will eventually rise to the middle class.
"I guess you just have hope," said Lair, who grew up lower-middle class but expects his children to rise to middle-class status. "They have a lot of years to get there." And yet, there are still a large number of people who just can't see a way out from where they are. Thirty percent of survey respondents who said they grew up in the middle class think their own children will end up falling to lower-middle status.
"There's no jobs for the younger ones," Sallo said. "While her older son is in college at Western Illinois University, she said he has no idea what he will be doing afterwards. Even with a college education, she is not sure what will happen to him. Her younger son, who was 18 at the time, had some trouble very soon after they moved from outside the city to Galesburg. Sallo feels that because they have very little money, he was trying to remedy that and it would not have occurred if Maytag were still an option for him. She still has hope that her children will be successful, but thinks it will be harder than it was for the previous generations that had reliable factory work.
On the other hand, some children of ex-Maytag workers feel that they and their parents are better off without Maytag. Lair's daughter Amanda, 30, who also lives now in St. Louis, said her father loves his new job. "(He) had to totally turn his life around by going back to school to get a different job," she said. "He is happier now doing what he wants to do instead of being stuck at a factory."
Amanda Lair had no plans to work at Maytag and is happy working at a childcare facility. For her generation, she said, there are still opportunities. They just aren't in factories.
Published on March 14, 2011