Leaving Sparrows Point for jobs in other states

Steelworkers exit Md. for manufacturing opportunities in Texas and elsewhere

  • Forrest and Lacey Martin pack some of their belongings as they prepare to move to Baytown, TX. Forrest worked as a crane operator at Sparrows Point and is moving to take a job with JSW Steel.
Forrest and Lacey Martin pack some of their belongings as they… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 02, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Joshua Polanowski was one of the first to go. He drove south in his 15-year-old GMC pickup truck, leaving behind freezing cold and a forever-closed steel mill for a balmy winter and a choice of manufacturing jobs.

Forrest and Lacey Martin followed with their two daughters and pair of cats.

Goodbye, Maryland. Hello, Texas.

The demise of Sparrows Point and its 2,000 jobs last year has forced many life-changing decisions. For a small but growing number of workers, that change is an out-of-state address.

Relocating for work, especially manufacturing, is a well-trod path in the United States. African-Americans went north for industrial jobs in the Great Migration of the 20th century. For several decades, "GM gypsies" have left towns where General Motors closed plants, building new lives in communities where the automaker still produced cars.

Now the Sparrows Point diaspora has begun, sending steelworkers to Texas, to Pennsylvania, to South Carolina, to California.

"There's been a wide dispersal," said Chris MacLarion, who was vice president of the United Steelworkers Local 9477 in Sparrows Point when the mill — the only one in the state — closed its doors.

About 150,000 people work in U.S. steel mills, roughly 50,000 fewer than in 2000, according to federal figures analyzed by the American Iron and Steel Institute. But Chuck Bradford, a New York-based metals analyst, said there should be options for job-seeking steelworkers willing to move, despite pressures on the industry. Steel mills are full of employees at the cusp of retirement, he said.

"There are a lot of people that need to be replaced, and it's hard to get people with good skills," Bradford said.

For Sparrows Point steelworkers, moving means leaving behind more than a familiar neighborhood. It's an uprooting from a tight-knit community where nearly everyone had a connection to the steel mill, where family trees include multiple generations who toiled there.

For Polanowski and the Martins, however, staying put meant a big pay cut. And daily reminders of loss. They, at least, were happy to go.

"I am going to miss the area I grew up in, but I can't wait to get away and start over," said Forrest Martin, 31, just before his family left in mid-February.

He started work at a JSW Steel plant near Houston on Monday — the fifth person there from Sparrows Point. More are on the way, or trying to land a job there.

For Martin, it's the first move out of state after a lifetime in Maryland, most of it on Choptank Avenue in Middle River. He and his wife, Lacey, lived next door to his parents' house, the home he grew up in. She has deep ties to the area, too — her grandfather and many other relatives worked at the Point.

"Nobody in my family, my immediate family, has ever left Baltimore," said Lacey Martin, 31. "My mother, especially, is taking it terribly. … It took a lot of convincing that 'we aren't doing this to hurt you — we're doing this to provide the best future we can for our kids.'"

After he lost his job at Sparrows Point, which paid $20 an hour and offered lots of overtime, Forrest Martin landed a $13-an-hour position at a rebar fabricator in Baltimore. He thinks he'll end up earning about $65,000 a year in Texas, counting overtime, which would beat even the Point.

And the Martins are thrilled by the lower cost of living. The four-bedroom rancher they're renting in Baytown, Texas? $899 a month. In their old stamping grounds, "you can't find a one-bedroom for that," Forrest Martin said.

Texas, so different culturally and politically from Maryland, wouldn't have been Lacey Martin's first choice, it's true. Besides that, she'll miss Berger cookies and Utz chips. And for the Martins' daughters, 4-year-old Ophelia and 3-year-old Alice, the fact that they're now far from their grandparents — 1,400 miles away — is only just setting in.

But before leaving, Forrest Martin got his parents connected to the Web and set up with Skype so the family can see each other via Internet calls, if not in person. And Lacey Martin, dealing with the isolation of being brand-new in a strange place, has reason to believe that too will pass. Everyone seems so friendly, she said.

Right before the move, she felt equally excited and terrified. But she didn't have second thoughts about the decision to leave.

"You have to go where the opportunity is, and I don't feel like it's here anymore," she said then, as she took a break from packing. "Unless you're a doctor — if you're a doctor, you're set. But if you're not, not so much."

The Texas manufacturing sector has recovered partially from its recessionary pummeling, thanks to oil-industry demand for pipes and other equipment. The state has added more than 40,000 manufacturing jobs since the end of 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In Maryland, the sector continued its long contraction, down 9,000 jobs over the same period — in part because of Sparrows Point.

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