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A first in southeast Michigan


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A first in southeast Michigan: Working class in the minority

March 8, 2004



In the 1978 movie "Blue Collar," Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel play Detroit factory workers battling bosses, the auto assembly line and union toughs as they strain for survival.

A 2004 version of the film might be re-fashioned as "White Collar," the saga of three computer engineers grappling with college loans, mortgages and long commutes as they strain for promotions.

The angst-ridden computer jockeys may not stack up cinematically, but they are the new reality in southeast Michigan. According to fresh statistics, most of the jobs in this cradle of blue-collar values, this incubator of raw-muscled American industry, are now white collar.

And since that movie was made, symbols of Detroit's manufacturing might -- like Dodge Main and Willow Run and Buick City in Flint -- have closed. The new icon of the Michigan economy is the Compuware headquarters in Detroit.

"The Rust Belt has sort of lost most of its rust," said Charles Hyde, an author and history professor at Wayne State University.

The trend is not a total surprise. The office buildings along Oakland County's I-696 corridor and the biomedical firms in Ann Arbor are proof of that.

But the dawning white-collar dominance is, like a socioeconomic Etch-a-Sketch, shaking the working-class image of metro Detroit. The clout, if not the soul, of the region is passing from machinists, drivers and electricians to scientists, engineers and writers.

"Outside of Michigan, people still think of Detroit as just plants," said Southfield resident Lindley Berry, 33, a lead designing engineer with General Motors Corp. "Inside, people are starting to talk about the different types of careers going on."

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics say southeast Michigan, including Flint and Ann Arbor, is more brain and less brawn:

  • Fifty-two percent of jobs are considered white collar.

  • Thirty-two percent of the jobs are considered blue collar.

  • Fifteen and a half percent are considered service jobs.

In 1997, 49 percent of jobs were white collar, 34 percent blue collar and 17 percent service.

The trend is a death knell for the glory days of industrial Detroit, the era when immigrants and unskilled laborers saw the area's well-paying factory jobs as their tickets to the middle class, complete with home ownership and college for the kids.

As low-skill work moves overseas or takes on tech-related qualifications, doors are closing on that fabled branch of American opportunity.

"Even the manufacturing jobs that remain, you can't literally get off a boat from Europe or cross the border and walk in the factory gate and get a job," Hyde said. "It's created a new underclass of people who really are just stuck at the bottom."

Dennis Marshall, a welder from Mt. Clemens, saw relatives and friends lose jobs when their factories shut down. He sometimes worries about the security of his $9.50-per-hour job at Response Welding Inc. in Mt. Clemens.

"You never know, because everybody wants stuff done overseas," Marshall, 43, said. "It's not fair for us."

The numbers tell what tipped Michigan over from blue collar to white: Michigan has lost 185,000 manufacturing jobs since its peak in 1999, according to the Department of Labor. The U.S. manufacturing sector has lost 2.6 million jobs since January 2001.

Faced with the continual and inevitable loss of manufacturing work, business and government officials see an opportunity to carve a new path for southeast Michigan's workers. The impulse is part necessity, part innovation.

Consider Automation Alley, a highly successful consortium of 500 or so technology-skewed firms. Clients are clustered along the business beltways of Oakland County but have spread into six other counties as well.

Executive Director Ken Rogers said he saw the potential long before the birth of the alley nearly five years ago.

The lunch bucket in the plant break room was giving way to microwave minute-meals alongside the computers, but no one was marketing a new image to businesses outside of the state, he said. Getting those companies here, he said, is a key to the region's survival.

"Southeast Michigan can handle economies in transition," Rogers said. "We did this in the late '70s and early '80s, when the auto industry decided it wasn't going to be producing a whole lot of cars here anymore.

"Did we go in the tank? Did we go away? Was our future lost? No."

Best-selling novelist Rosalyn McMillan, 50, fought for her own future after 19 years on the line. Most mornings from 1973 to 1992, she left her Detroit home before dawn for a now-closed Ford plant in Mt. Clemens. There she operated a machine churning out luxury seats for Lincolns.

The $50,000 annual pay was good but the work was skull-crushing boredom, she said.

"You're a body. Your brain doesn't matter," she said.

Thanks to some off-the-job injuries and the prodding of her sister, author Terry McMillan, McMillan left Ford and began working on what would be her first published novel, "Knowing."

"When I first left Ford, I was scared. I was worried. I missed all my friends," said McMillan, who moved from Southfield to Bartlett, Tenn., in 1997. "But after a while, if you're an intelligent person and you're not challenged, it's depressing."

McMillan said her two sons and two daughters still live in Michigan. One son is a computer engineer for Ford, the other a Ford factory worker.

She wanted a way out of manufacturing, and she wants the same for her children -- but others want a way in. The money is exceptional for those who don't have college degrees.

Andrew Hale, 20, entered Western Michigan University aiming to be a high school history teacher; after one semester, he'd had enough.

"You can make up to $25 an hour doing this kind of stuff," the Shelby Township construction worker said on the job at an Oakland Township site. "I like it, it's fun, and you continually learn."

Tom Miller, the night foreman at Response Welding, said he doesn't mind his job but has the feeling it's becoming a relic.

"We're moving out of the industrial age and into the information age," Miller, 31, said. "It's time for us to do something else."

Contact ALEXA CAPELOTO at 586-469-4935 or [email protected] Staff writer Jeff Bennett contributed to this report.

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