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The Black Hole of Long-Term Unemployment

Born out of America's economic crisis is the extraordinary growth of a jobless underclass numbering in the millions.

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Whether the industry will ever fully recover, however, is unclear. The manufacturers I spoke to were optimistic about future sales. "Despite the logic of what's going on in the economy, the buyers are still there," said Jerimiah Borkowski, a spokesman for Thor Motor Coach. But a 2009 analysis by Indiana University's Business Research Center projected that by 2013 annual RV shipments still won't have returned to their 2006 peak. "I personally don't think it'll ever rebound to pre-2008 levels," says Bill Dawson, vice president and general manager of Clean Seal Inc., a South Bend-based supplier of parts to the RV industry. Dawson points to industry contractions -- Thor's $209 million acquisition of Heartland RV, the Damon Motor Coach-Four Winds merger, as well as numerous factory closings -- and says, "Fewer players mean fewer units and fewer people making them."

Rembold knows the RV industry's ebb and flow all too well. He's lived in its shadow for the majority of his working career, including 18 years with Architectural Wood Company (AWC), an Elkhart-based manufacturer of wood products used to outfit RVs and conversion vans. He's made handcrafted tables, faceplates, valences, and overhead consoles, usually from oak or maple, finishing them with the gloss that gives Kimball grand pianos and Fender guitars their shine.

But by the 1990s and 2000s, his line of work looked to be headed the way of the 8-track tape. The conversion van industry was sinking. RV manufacturers had begun replacing wood with cheaper plastics and vinyl-wrapped plywood. (At an RV show we visited, Rembold could step inside a vehicle and determine by smell alone if the manufacturer used the real thing or not.) Orders plummeted at AWC. By early 2006, the company's financial health was so dire that the owner, a good friend of Rembold's, let him go. A few years later, the company itself folded.

Rembold then caromed from one job to the next: selling used cars and motorcycles, driving a semi truck, working behind six inches of bulletproof glass as a teller at Check$mart. He briefly ended up back in RVs, supervising employees sewing tents for campers, and then, last winter, temped at a struggling wood shop. That was his last job.  After the holidays, he was never called back.

Like millions in his predicament, Rembold knows his chances of finding a decent-paying job doing what he loves decrease with each temporary, non-manufacturing job he’s taken. What doesn't fit on a resume -- and so frustrates him most -- is his adaptability, if only he could convince an employer of it.  College degree or not, certification or not, he insists, he's always adapted to new settings. "Could I do construction? Hell, yeah, I could do it. I could measure in metric, in standard; I'd correct cutting mistakes, do it all. I just can't get anyone to let me do it."

As we talked, the RV plants gave way to lush farmland and we found ourselves driving through Amish country, sharing quiet two-lane roads with horse-drawn buggies. By early afternoon we rolled into the town of Topeka (pop. 1,200), past the Seed and Stove store and the Do-It Better hardware shop. Then Rembold's cell phone buzzed, a rare break in the conversation. It was his daughter, Angie, 28, the youngest of his three kids.

He listened, then yanked off his sunglasses. "You what?"

Angie managed the Check$mart in Goshen, the check-cashing outfit Rembold once worked for, and she was good at her job, Rembold had told me earlier. Now she was agitated, talking so loudly that I caught bits and pieces of the conversation over the din of the radio. Something about a bonus owed that she didn't receive. When Rembold abruptly hung up, he muttered, "Jesus H. Christ."

 
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