Factories, Few And Far Between
More than 1,000 cars a day roll off assembly lines at the Honda plant outside of Marysville. Another plant just up the road in East Liberty makes hundreds more.
All of that production means jobs: Central Ohio is home to about 15,000 Honda workers, most of whom live in Union County. Nearby Honda parts suppliers employ another 30,000 people.
Hank Real, the head of human resources for all of Honda’s Ohio plants, says they offer a good wage to many workers with no education beyond high school. Starting pay is $16.40 per hour, he says, and top pay reaches $26.25.
A regular line worker here, not management, could earn $52,000 a year. That’s even before overtime, which is plentiful right now.
“People tend to stay here,” Real says. “Our turnover is about 1.5 percent. So people don’t leave this organization very much.”
It’s a good gig in a county where, according to the Census Bureau, per capita income is less than $30,000 a year. It’s also an increasingly rare line of work.
Ohio’s economy, like much of the Rust Belt, once rested on manufacturing. As new technologies took those jobs away, few new paths opened for lower-educated people to achieve the same middle-class lifestyles that factories once afforded.
And in Columbus, where levels of economic segregation are some of the worst in the country, that means entire swaths of the city got left behind.
A Mechanic’s Path
Central Ohio does have its success stories, of course. Among their ranks are Josh Blue, a 37-year-old Union County native who works at the Marysville assembly plant.
“We do interior parts,” Blue says. “Engine mounts, speakers, we do the dashboard insulators.”
The list goes on.
Blue grew up in a lower-income family in the small Union County village of Richwood, as the second-youngest of five kids. From a young age, he had a knack for working on cars and thought he might become a mechanic.
Blue saw some friends land jobs at Honda after high school, so he thought he’d give factory work a shot.
“I put my resume in, they sent me an application,” Blue says. “Then, within like a year, I got a call for my first interview. Then did a second interview, then a third interview, then got a call and got hired on.”
Fifteen years later, Blue says he still likes his job, especially the health care, pension, and 401(k) plan. If all goes as planned, he’ll be able to retire by his mid-50s.
Where Industry Ruled
On Columbus’ West Side, the area around West Broad Street and Georgesville Road once played host to several thousand workers, fueled by post-war optimism.
A Delphi plant made door latches and seat springs destined for auto factories around the country. A nearby White Westinghouse plant created appliances for the kitchens of upstart neighborhoods like Lincoln Village, Westgate, and the Hilltop.
Locals still reminisce about the traffic jams on West Broad Street that sprung up as workers changed shifts. Those workers earned strong industrial wages, enough to pay a mortgage, buy a boat, put the kids through college.
“To say the least, this was a flourishing area of industry,” says Bill Huffman, who helps run the non-profit organization Friends of the Hilltop.
Unlike many of his friends, Huffman remained in the Hilltop after raising his four daughters, three of whom attended West High School.
He fondly remembers the days of shopping at the Gold Circle department store and taking the family to dine at the buffets at Brown Derby restaurant. Huffman himself worked downtown for the F & R Lazarus Company, while many of his friends and neighbors worked in nearby factories.
“You had White-Westinghouse, who built refrigerators and stoves,” Huffman says. “You had GM who built the cars. We had a couple other factories along with them that actually subsidized GM out here for parts.”
No Easy Road
The Hilltop today looks little like Huffman’s memory. U.S. Census Bureau figures show the number of manufacturing jobs in the Hilltop shrank by 12 percent from 2004 to 2015.
Across the country, the manufacturing industry lost 6 million jobs from 1987-2010. Many disappeared during the Great Recession, though about a million returned since then.
The old Delphi plant, which first opened as a GM plant after World War II, shut down in 2007. The Hollywood Casino now sits in its spot. It employs hundreds of dealers and other workers, but most make a wage more in the neighborhood of $10 an hour.
“The last workers that I knew that used to work at White-Westingthouse were making $23 an hour,” Huffman says. “Fifteen years ago that was big money. That’s like $40 an hour today.”
As those thousands of industrial jobs left the West Side, Huffman says, so did neighborhood morale.
“Because the simple fact, when jobs leave, so does hope. And when hopes leaves, that’s when disparity comes,” Huffman says. “Crime moves in, prostitution, drugs, because they know there’s nobody out here that cares anymore. That’s what we’re fighting to take back, is our community right now.”
Census Bureau data show an unemployment rate in the area around the Hilltop of about 6 percent. In some individual census tracks, that figure balloons to around 11 percent, more than double the national average of 4.2 percent.
Union County, which is home to the Marysville Honda plant, has an unemployment rate of less than 4 percent and a higher concentration of manufacturing jobs.
In Marysville, 22.8 percent of all workers are employed in manufacturing, compared to 11.4 percent in the Hilltop area.
Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander, researchers at the University of Toronto, found that economic segregation is most intense in Rustbelt cities that underwent this sort of rapid de-industrialization. Fewer factories means fewer working-class careers, which means fewer middle-income families living in industrial neighborhoods.
The jobs may move, but not many residents can do the same. Bill Lafayette, who runs the Columbus economic firm Regionomics, says the best chance for people on the West Side trying to get a factory job is probably a longer commute.
“If they have the means to go to Rickenbacker, go to the railroad yard, go to Union County and get a job there, there are opportunities there,” Lafayette says.
The key words there: “If they have the means.” That longer commute means more money for gasoline, or, if they’re lucky enough to be on a bus route, a far and time-consuming ride.
Either way, that’s no easy road to the middle class.
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