Rob didn’t even finish high school, but the summer after his senior year he found a job at a factory. He started out making $12 an hour, and after overtime, he was making about $600 a week. The benefits package was great, too, he said. But it was an assembly line job, and he hated it. “Just figured out I didn’t like it, really,” he said. “Doing the same thing, repetitive, all the time. Gets kind of old.” He preferred to be outside doing work. “I’m a pretty good worker,” he said, “just not my cup o’ tea.” So he quit after a month.
When I first talked to Rob, during the summer of 2010, he was a roofer, and feeling the effects of the Great Recession. He didn’t make enough money to support his family—he worked for a small company, and they couldn’t afford to give employees a benefits package. In retrospect, he said, the factory work sounded pretty good. The factory wasn’t hiring during the recession, but they never did lay off any full-time workers. “Great place to work, really,” Rob said. “Kinda screwed it up, I guess.”
In our interviews with working-class young adults in southwestern Ohio, as well as in our experience as neighbors and friends to working-class young people, my wife and I have been surprised by how often people say that they aren’t interested in factory jobs. When we read the reports of sociologists and economists, we hear a lot about the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs in working-class America, and the tremendous toll that it has exacted in working-class communities. Naturally, then, we expected to find that young people would embrace what factory work did remain. But many times we heard just the opposite.
For instance, Stephanie knew that there were jobs available at the factory where her stepdad works. But she wrinkled her nose and made a slight frown. “It’s not for me. I like being able to be creative. And you can’t do that in a factory.”
Stephanie currently works in food service. She says it is not her ideal, but that it is better than factory work.
“I can show them my ideas,” she said, thinking about the menu, food presentation, how things should be cleaned or organized. “My manager lets me put my two cents in.” In other words, she sees it as relational and somewhat flexible, as opposed to automatic and impersonal.
‘I like being able to be creative. And you can’t do that in a factory.’
Jessica, who also worked at a restaurant, was similarly dismissive about factory work. About her stint at a candy factory, Jessica said, “Sucked, hated it…. I made good money. I made $17 an hour and I was a manager, just a third-shift manager, just supervising the floor, making sure people were doing their job. Absolutely hated it, but it was good money.”
Seth, who struggled to keep steady work, pointed to a middle-aged couple in which the husband worked at a factory for about $20 an hour, and said pointedly, “I do not wanna live their life: work in a factory twelve hours a day, come home and drink beer.” Seth wanted to go to college, he said, and get a rewarding job. He briefly worked at a factory making $13.75 an hour, and he says it was actually one of his favorite jobs. “But not for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s not fulfilling. It’s not satisfying to me. I just feel like it’s a token job anyone can get. I wanna at least make myself feel important. Even if I’m really not that important, I wanna feel like I am.” He added, “I don’t really like manual labor … I wanna have a job that’s more personal with people.”
By 2014, newspapers were regularly reporting about manufacturers fretting that they couldn’t find skilled laborers, and at least some factories were hiring. But one young man who worked for a stint at a factory—the same factory where Rob worked about a decade before—said that he started job orientation with five other new hires. By the time two weeks had passed, only two of them were left. When I asked why, he explained that they had a hard time keeping up with the pace of work.
Even in 2011, Elliott, who worked at a factory making $14.25 an hour (benefits package included), told me that the factory kept a permanent “Now Hiring” sign posted because they couldn’t find and keep enough employees. In the one year that he had been working there, he estimated that he had seen about fifty employees come and go. “The main thing is the attendance policy,” he said, explaining that employees, absent a “legitimate excuse” (like a doctor’s record), were allowed three absences within a six-month period. “And the job, it’s not really hard, but you have to be quick and you have to know the job.” It’s not that the work required advanced skills: Elliott got the job about a year out of high school, and he had no prior training for the work.
So what’s going on? Why are some working-class young people avoiding available factory work—even relatively well-paying factory work—when many of them face slim job prospects without further education? Is this a case of working-class people working against their own interests, or are there understandable reasons? In my next piece, I’ll address three ideas for how to make sense of working-class ambivalence towards factory work.