When my wife and I returned to Peoria after I graduated from law school (1982), a cloud of fear overshadowed Central Illinois. Peoria was still reeling from the thousands of layoffs that had taken place in the late 1970s. Families were fleeing to other states in search of good-paying jobs.
A lawyer for whom I had done some carpentry work while I was in college told me that the only lawyers who were doing well in the Peoria area were the bankruptcy attorneys. He told me that business owners were “constantly looking over their shoulders,” fearful of what was going to happen next.
In 1983, I moved my wife and two children out of a two-bedroom apartment and into a three-bedroom ranch house on Sterling Avenue. I rented the house for $400 per month from a young man who had been laid off from CAT. He felt that he had no other choice but to move his wife and three children to Texas, where he could find a good-paying blue-collar job.
Although it took several years before we had a true economic recovery in Peoria, the people who wanted to work were able to eventually find full-time jobs that provided enough income to support a family. At that time, Peoria still had a strong industrial base, which included CAT, Keystone, International Paper, Hiram Walker, Pabst Brewery, ADM, Kiefer Electric, and the TP&W Railroad.
All those local companies were thriving enterprises that offered good-paying jobs with benefits that included health insurance and a pension. The wages earned at those jobs were more than sufficient to support a family.
Now, 31 years later, we’re in the midst of another severe recession. I sense the same fear I was exposed to when I graduated from law school and returned to Peoria. But it’s much worse now. Many people have lost hope. They know that the industrial jobs that were plentiful during the last recovery will never return. What do they have to look forward to?
I recently met with a young man in his early 20s who is working part-time for three different local restaurants. His live-in girlfriend (who is pregnant and is due to deliver her baby in December) is working part-time for two different companies. Their combined income is half of what the man would have earned in the late 1980s, working for one of the above-mentioned companies.
Within a week of meeting with the young man, I met with a woman in her early 50s who is juggling five part-time jobs. You read that right. Five jobs. Her total income is about 60 percent of what she would have earned in the late 1980s working for one of the above-mentioned companies.
Recently large groups of employees staged a one-day strike against McDonald’s and Walmart, demanding that those companies pay the employees a “living wage.” Despite the fact that the employees freely chose to work for those companies with full knowledge of what they were going to be paid, they insisted that they were being cheated out of what they were entitled to.
Jobs at McDonald’s and Walmart have always been considered “entry-level” positions, where employees can get their start in the working world in the hopes of learning new skills and eventually advancing on to higher-paying jobs. The problem that the majority of the entry-level employees are facing is that up until about 25 or 30 years ago, there were always good-paying, midlevel jobs that they could look forward to advancing to once they developed their skills.
Unfortunately, many of the good-paying, midlevel jobs that were once available have forever disappeared.
In the mid-1970s (during my college years), I worked for a couple of summers as a laborer for a construction company. One of the jobs I had to periodically perform was breaking up 12-inch-thick concrete slabs with a handheld jackhammer. The jackhammer I used weighed at least 100 pounds and was hooked up to a large air compressor. I had to learn to pace myself, because when I gave it all I had, I was wiped out after a couple of hours. It’s not good when you still have six hours of work to do after you’ve completely worn yourself out during the first two hours of the day.
There was one job where I worked alongside two other laborers with jackhammers. We worked together for two days to break up a large room-sized area of concrete.
Because I worked construction, I still slow down and pay attention to every construction site that I drive by. I can’t remember the last time I saw a handheld jackhammer. What I see now is a backhoe-type tractor with a jackhammer attachment that’s about three times the size of the handheld jackhammer I used. The room-sized area of concrete that it took two other men and me two days to break up now takes one of those machine-operated jackhammers less than two hours.
Have you seen that monstrous machine they now use to pour new concrete roads? One of them does the work of at least 15 men. I know, because before that machine was invented, I worked with a road crew who poured concrete. Back then it took an army of men to pour new concrete roads. Now, all that’s needed is that machine and a handful of men to do the same job.
The unprecedented advances in new technology over the past 30 years have eliminated millions of jobs in our country — not only in the construction industry — but in all other industries.
When you combine the loss of jobs due to technology breakthroughs with the loss of positions to overseas companies, you see why there’s such a huge void of midlevel jobs. Without them, the people who are working in entry-level positions have no place to advance to.
It’s futile to attempt to place the blame on McDonald’s and Walmart for only paying entry-level wages. Food-service and retail jobs will always be nothing more than entry-level positions. The real problem is the lack of good-paying, midlevel jobs.
If you work in a mid- or high-level job, you should humbly thank God every day for giving you the education, talents, skills, and opportunity to be able to advance to the level where you are. Yes, you worked hard to get there, and you can take some credit for that, but you were still blessed with the intelligence, drive, and guidance that were needed to get you to where you are today.
If you’re stuck in one or more entry-level jobs, there is a way out, but it’s not going to be easy. In the world I grew up in, it was almost a rite of passage to move to the next level of employment after putting in your time at an entry-level job. In today’s world, it takes a lot of grit, ambition, determination, and creativity to make it to the next level. There is a next level out there waiting for you, but you need to earn it.
The same can be said for getting into heaven. You don’t have an automatic right to advance to the heavenly level. It takes a lifetime of prayer, determination, resilience, and the daily performance of corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Are you up to the task? I hope so.