Families take stock of their lives as economy struggles to recover

Retraining for new economy

Election 2004

October 05, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MILWAUKEE, Wis. - Douglas Konecny loved everything about manufacturing. He loved the roar of the machines and the hum of the factory walls. The vibrations. The smells. Even the feel of the fans blowing against his damp skin on midsummer days when it was 10 degrees hotter inside the seven-story building than outside.

He could tell when things were going right and when they were going wrong. Even when he wasn't there.

"You actually feel it like your own blood pumping," Konecny, 49, says of the work that gave him satisfaction and a comfortable, middle-class life for nearly 30 years. "Manufacturing made me feel really good. I felt good about what I did."

A chatty, personable Wisconsin native with graying blond hair, a mustache and the Scandinavian lilt of the Midwest, Doug had started out as an inventory clerk five factory jobs ago and risen to plant manager at the Allen D. Everitt Knitting Co. At Everitt, which produced hats, gloves and scarves for stores like Lord & Taylor and Sears, he supervised a staff of nearly 100 - including his wife, Carole, and their two college-age children, who all worked there part time - and earned $56,000 a year plus bonuses.

But when the company closed its doors nearly two years ago, after losing more and more of its sales base to foreign competition, the manufacturing man realized that, like the crumbling, century-old factory buildings by the Menomonee River that will soon become condominiums and lofts, he had to remake himself for the new economy.

Konecny, whose education had ended with high school, nervously went back to school and took business courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College toward an associate's degree. Carole, 52, with a high school diploma and some cosmetology classes behind her, enrolled in computer courses.

The family collected unemployment - which covered their living expenses once they cut back on gas, walking or riding bikes as often as possible, and eliminated gifts for family and friends, trips, restaurants and "anything that was fun," Carole says.

But health insurance, at $1,150 a month, was "the killer," says Doug, who is diabetic and suffered a mild heart attack six years ago. "We realized if we didn't have health insurance, we're destitute if something should happen," he says.

To pay for coverage, they took out a home-equity loan and dipped into their savings. The two children offered to drop out of college.

All the while, Carole and Doug looked aggressively for work, sending out five to 10, sometimes 20, resumes apiece each week, hoping that at least one of them would quickly find a job with health benefits.

But for weeks and months - in Doug's case a year and a half - the job hunters grew increasingly frustrated at what they were finding in the paper and on the Internet: low-paying jobs, part-time jobs, jobs without benefits.

"We've worked hard," says Doug, who shares with his wife a quirky obsession with all things Disney, including the 4-foot-tall Disney characters adorning the front of their home and their Mickey Mouse toilet seat. "We don't live in the suburbs or have the best house. But every year we've made little increases, investing in the house or things that we did. Each year was a little bit better than the year before."

Until the past two. Until the close-knit, hardworking, coupon-clipping family sunk to just above the poverty level. Until, as they see it, President Bush let manufacturing crumble, let jobs disappear, let the economy plummet, the deficit soar and let hardworking Americans like themselves come dangerously close to losing their place in the middle class.

"There may be jobs, but they are jobs without benefits or jobs without much of a future," Doug says, puffing on a Bronco cigarette as he and his wife, both wearing Disney-themed clothes, rock in matching La-Z-Boy loungers. "They are jobs at McDonald's or Wal-Mart - not that they're bad companies. But the jobs that Bush is reporting, they're not jobs for a family."

The view from Michael Gibbs' new office cubicle at InPro Corp. couldn't be more different.

At this fast-growing company that manufactures architectural trim such as handrails for commercial buildings, the 39-year-old father of two young boys sees a bustling business, a promising future, even perks like a state-of-the-art gym at the office with a personal trainer, who Michael hopes will help him lose 20 pounds.

He had joined the company in the Milwaukee suburb of Muskego seven weeks earlier, taking a $10 an hour job in the shipping department to supplement a part-time nursing job he held at a crossroads in his career.

The company was doing so well that after his first week, he received a $100 bonus in his check. At the end of the quarter, he took home an extra $450.

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