[Paleopsych] NYT: No Degree, and No Way Back to the Middle
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Wed May 25 00:47:17 UTC 2005
No Degree, and No Way Back to the Middle
Class Matters - Social Class and Education in the United States of America
[Supplementary article to the fifth in a series.]
By TIMOTHY EGAN
SPOKANE, Wash. - Over the course of his adult life, Jeff Martinelli
has married three women and buried one of them, a cancer victim. He
had a son and has watched him raise a child of his own. Through it
all, one thing was constant: a factory job that was his ticket to the
It was not until that job disappeared, and he tried to find something
- anything - to keep him close to the security of his former life that
Mr. Martinelli came to an abrupt realization about the fate of a
working man with no college degree in 21st-century America.
He has skills developed operating heavy machinery, laboring over a
stew of molten bauxite at Kaiser Aluminum, once one of the best jobs
in this city of 200,000. His health is fine. He has no shortage of
ambition. But the world has changed for people like Mr. Martinelli.
"For a guy like me, with no college, it's become pretty bleak out
there," said Mr. Martinelli, who is 50 and deals with life's curves
with a resigned shrug.
His son, Caleb, already knows what it is like out there. Since high
school, Caleb has had six jobs, none very promising. Now 28, he may
never reach the middle class, he said. But for his father and others
of a generation that could count on a comfortable life without a
degree, the fall out of the middle class has come as a shock. They had
been frozen in another age, a time when Kaiser factory workers could
buy new cars, take decent vacations and enjoy full health care
They have seen factory gates close and not reopen. They have taken
retraining classes for jobs that pay half their old wages. And as they
hustle around for work, they have been constantly reminded of the one
thing that stands out on their résumés: the education that ended with
a high school diploma.
It is not just that the American economy has shed six million
manufacturing jobs over the last three decades; it is that the market
value of those put out of work, people like Jeff Martinelli, has
declined considerably over their lifetimes, opening a gap that has
left millions of blue-collar workers at the margins of the middle
And the changes go beyond the factory floor. Mark McClellan worked his
way up from the Kaiser furnaces to management. He did it by taking
extra shifts and learning everything he could about the aluminum
Still, in 2001, when Kaiser closed, Mr. McClellan discovered that the
job market did not value his factory skills nearly as much as it did
four years of college. He had the experience, built over a lifetime,
but no degree. And for that, he said, he was marked.
He still lives in a grand house in one of the nicest parts of town,
and he drives a big white Jeep. But they are a facade.
"I may look middle class," said Mr. McClellan, who is 45, with a
square, honest face and a barrel chest. "But I'm not. My boat is
By the time these two Kaiser men were forced out of work, a man in his
50's with a college degree could expect to earn 81 percent more than a
man of the same age with just a high school diploma. When they had
started work, the gap was only 52 percent. Other studies show
different numbers, but the same trend - a big disparity that opened
over their lifetimes.
Mr. Martinelli refuses to feel sorry for himself. He has a job in pest
control now, killing ants and spiders at people's homes, making barely
half the money he made at the Kaiser smelter, where a worker with his
experience would make about $60,000 a year in wages and benefits.
"At least I have a job," he said. "Some of the guys I worked with have
still not found anything. A couple of guys lost their houses."
Mr. Martinelli and other former factory workers say that, over time,
they have come to fear that the fall out of the middle class could be
permanent. Their new lives - the frustrating job interviews, the bills
that arrive with red warning letters on the outside - are consequences
of a decision made at age 18.
The management veteran, Mr. McClellan, was a doctor's son, just out of
high school, when he decided he did not need to go much farther than
the big factory at the edge of town. He thought about going to
college. But when he got on at Kaiser, he felt he had arrived.
His father, a general practitioner now dead, gave him his blessing,
even encouraged him in the choice, Mr. McClellan said.
At the time, the decision to skip college was not that unusual, even
for a child of the middle class. Despite Mr. McClellan's lack of
skills or education beyond the 12th grade, there was good reason to
believe that the aluminum factory could get him into middle-class
security quicker than a bachelor's degree could, he said.
By 22, he was a group foreman. By 28, a supervisor. By 32, he was in
management. Before his 40th birthday, Mr. McClellan hit his earnings
peak, making $100,000 with bonuses.
Friends of his, people with college degrees, were not earning close to
that, Mr. McClellan said.
"I had a house with a swimming pool, new cars," he said. "My wife
never had to work. I was right in the middle of middle-class America
and I knew it and I loved it."
If anything, the union man, Mr. Martinelli, appreciated the
middle-class life even more, because of the distance he had traveled
to get there. He remembers his stomach growling at night as a child,
the humiliation of welfare, hauling groceries home through the snow on
a little cart because the family had no car.
"I was ashamed," he said.
He was a C student without much of a future, just out of high school,
when he got his break: the job on the Kaiser factory floor. Inside, it
was long shifts around hot furnaces. Outside, he was a prince of
College students worked inside the factory in the summer, and some
never went back to school.
"You knew people leaving here for college would sometimes get better
jobs, but you had a good job, so it was fine," said Mike Lacy, a close
friend of Mr. Martinelli and a co-worker at Kaiser.
The job lasted just short of 30 years. Kaiser, debt-ridden after a
series of failed management initiatives and a long strike, closed the
plant in 2001 and sold the factory carcass for salvage.
Mr. McClellan has yet to find work, living off his dwindling savings
and investments from his years at Kaiser, though he continues with
plans to open his own car wash. He pays $900 a month for a basic
health insurance policy - vital to keep his wife, Vicky, who has a
rare brain disease, alive. He pays an additional $500 a month for her
medications. He is both husband and nurse.
"Am I scared just a little bit?" he said. "Yeah, I am."
He has vowed that his son David will never do the kind of
second-guessing that he is. Even at 16, David knows what he wants to
do: go to college and study medicine. He said his father, whom he has
seen struggle to balance the tasks of home nurse with trying to pay
the bills, had grown heroic in his eyes.
He said he would not make the same choice his father did 27 years
earlier. "There's nothing like the Kaiser plant around here anymore,"
Mr. McClellan agrees. He is firm in one conclusion, having risen from
the factory floor only to be knocked down: "There is no working up
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