Workers in transition: In some of the hardest hit industries, the jobs may not be coming backby Annie Baxter, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When Todd Bjerstedt built luxury homes in Woodbury, he was the eternal optimist.
"You always think that next spring, or next fall, or next Parade of Homes, things are going to turn around," Bjerstedt said.
As a homebuilder Bjerstedt has been at the epicenter of the economic slowdown, which started earlier in Minnesota than the rest of the nation.
More than 150,000 jobs disappeared from Minnesota because of the recession. Job losses have gouged nearly every sector in the state's economy, but Minnesotans who swing a hammer got nailed especially hard. Some of them didn't see the blows coming, or realize how much they'd hurt.
Bjerstedt, 53, had pumped thousands of dollars of personal savings into his struggling homebuilding business, only to see it fold in 2006. He looks back on his change of fortune with a sense of humor.
"We used to have a lot of things including some savings," Bjerstedt said, laughing. "Everything fundamentally is gone. We consumed everything between trying to keep the business open as long as we could, and then trying to keep our home as long as we could."
Last fall, the Bjerstedts lost the struggle to keep their Hudson, Wis., home out of foreclosure. Bjerstedt oversaw construction of the $700,000 home himself. Now his family leases a townhome in Hudson about one third the size of their old place.
In his new job as a remodeling project manager at McDonald Remodeling Inc., he pulls in about one third of his former income as a homebuilder.
Bjerstedt said their lives have changed dramatically.
"When we wanted something before, it usually just appeared," he said. "Those days are behind us -- maybe forever."
Despite his losses, Bjerstedt is trying to hang on in one of Minnesota's most battered industries. Since the recession started, about a quarter of all construction jobs -- more than 30,000 -- have disappeared in Minnesota. State officials predict the sector will keep shrinking for the rest of the year. That will force many construction workers to find work in other industries.
The service sector, especially the growing health care field, could be a logical place for them to seek new jobs. But that requires retraining. Economists say if workers from shrinking industries don't retrain, they'll be stuck with skills that are less in demand -- and businesses that need workers won't be able to find the skills they need.
That could hamper an economic recovery.
"That jobs mismatch problem will be a challenge not just for Minnesota but for every state looking out into the future," state economist Tom Stinson said.
Minnesota's factories have shed more than 40,000 jobs since the recession started.
Some workers are changing direction. At Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical in Winona, Leigh Elder and Wally Tulare have enrolled in a truck-driving class to steer away from manufacturing. The two men worked as tool and die makers for the past thirty odd years, earning salaries of about $50,000. Luxco in La Crosse, Wis., laid both off last fall. Tulare, of La Crosse, is thrilled to launch a new career as a trucker and leave behind the insecurity of the manufacturing sector.
"I'm fully aware that some of the jobs that used to pay well in manufacturing are gone," he said. "They're not coming back. They went overseas. There are people over there who are willing to work for them a whole bunch cheaper than we are."
Tulare figures the move into trucking will cost him $15,000 a year in reduced pay. That's a typical problem. Many people who are laid off find their next job pays less than they position they lost. Experts say the resulting income loss suffered is one of the most damaging effects of the recession.
For Tulare, 52, the financial hits will be manageable. He has pensions from his manufacturing job and the military, his house is paid for, and his kids are grown.
"I looked at this whole thing as an awesome opportunity to start with a clean slate, a new career," Tulare said. "I set on trucking because everything that people have is hauled by a truck."
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs driving big rigs should grow by 13 percent over the next decade.
Long term, the nation's factory sector is expected to shrink, but right now, it's one of the industries leading the recovery. Though Leigh Elder had sought to leave manufacturing and embrace a new career in trucking, he recently got an enticing tool and die job offer.
"They're offering me more money than I made in my last job," he said. "They also added an extra weeks' vacation, and they're willing to wait until I finish the classroom part of the truck driving."
At 56, Elder has decided to take that job and stay in manufacturing. But Elder is reluctant to climb out of the big rig so quickly. He figures if manufacturing burns him again, he now has a back-up career in trucking.
"Every day I think I'm getting better at it," Elder said. "I hope I'm making the right decision."
Todd Bjerstedt, the homebuilder, isn't as eager as the workers in Winona to exit his industry. He's tried to stay close to the construction business in his current work remodeling.
Bjerstedt doesn't know how he can start over. He has considered pursuing other careers outside of the housing industry, but he doesn't see ample opportunity. And retraining doesn't seem like a viable option.
"I can't stop going to work to go to school. That's just not going to happen," he said. "At my age, I can't afford to take a year or two off and borrow money, even if we could, and then try to make that up in the future, so I think that's a bit of a challenge. And I'm sure it's being done and some can do it, but I can't imagine not getting up and going to work tomorrow. I don't see how that works."
State labor market analyst Steve Hine said the state needs to facilitate the training and transition for people like Bjerstedt so they can move into fields that are hiring. That would help ensure the state economy has the skills it needs.
"From a public policy perspective, situations like that are the kind of situations that we need to deal with," Hine said.
Minnesota's dislocated worker program does offer help with retraining. It ran out of funds earlier this year, but $8 million in recent emergency grants should help workers on the waiting list.
Hine said workers commonly worry that they can't afford to retrain. But he said they shouldn't have to.
"We need to make sure that that sort of transition is readily available and affordable," he said.
Since Bjerstedt doesn't think he has such options, he has other plans. He hopes to return to homebuilding once the market improves. Meanwhile, his family is trying to get used to their scaled back lifestyle. His 15-year-old daughter Olivia says all the tumult in her dad's career has changed her outlook.
"Before, I guess I sort of got things handed to me more, but now it's made me realize that not everything's just easy going," she said.
That may be true for the families of millions of American workers, who have to find their way with skills for which demand has waned.