DAYTON, Ohio — When the county job center here first opened its doors here in 1997, the toughest challenge facing he staff was finding enough people to fill the thousands of new positions that were opening up in the area.
"We couldn't keep up. Most of the projects coming in were 300, 400, 500 jobs at a time and they were coming in every week," recalled Lucious Plant, the center's work force development coordinator. "It was a very robust job market, not like any I've ever seen in my life in government."
But Dayton's manic job activity of the '90s has since given way to a panic that's changed the focus of the job center and the fortunes of the entire region.
Instead of finding workers for employee-starved companies, Plant and his staff spend most of their time counseling and assisting a growing number of job seekers on how to find work in the ultra-competitive and ever-shrinking job market.
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"Frankly, there isn't a time I go down the hall where I don't hear people saying, 'Can you help my son or my daughter?'' Plant said. "There are people looking everywhere for a job. But the volume of jobs just is not there."
Like Detroit and other cities whose economies are tied to the auto industry, Dayton is an old-school manufacturing town struggling to reinvent itself as the worldwide financial crisis adds an extra layer of pain and difficulty. And if the current crisis continues, Dayton could be one of the nation's hardest-hit cities in any prolonged recession.
This month, journalists from McClatchy and the American News Project, an independent video news outlet, are chronicling the effects of the economic crisis on Americans of all backgrounds. The project, "Fallout on Main Street," is available in print, on video and on the Internet.
Jerome McCorry finds it hard to imagine that the job market could get any tougher. The 58-year-old Dayton native holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and a master's degree in theology, but he's been unemployed since February 2007, when his former employer, a state social services contractor, went belly up. For 15 years, McCorry told laid-off workers, drug abusers and people leaving prison how to find jobs, interview and fill out resumes. Now, he needs the help.
Each day he comes to the job center to research prospective employers. His wife, Candace, works at the center as a case manager for the county jobs and family services division. They ride to work together and have lunch each afternoon.
"She has been a big boost to me," McCorry said. "She's very supportive of what I'm doing here. I think it has given her a heart that allows her to understand what people that come to her are really going through."
Going 20 months without a job has been painful for McCorry. He said he's been on more than 20 interviews, but employers may feel he's overqualified or, perhaps, a bit too old. His salt-and-pepper goatee probably doesn't help his cause.
Having also worked as a chaplain at a state mental health facility, McCorry said he's open to non-professional work if necessary. He recently completed training to become a certified dog trainer.
"And trust me, if I could get the animal resource control people to hire me as a person to pick up stray dogs, I'd even do that. I think that's how desperate you become after this goes on for a while."
Plant said that many employers tell him they're getting more resumes from people such as McCorry whose advanced degrees haven't helped them find work. In lieu of professional employment, most would prefer jobs in the manufacturing sector, which typically provide better wages and benefits.
Those jobs, however, have become harder to find in Dayton's battered economy.
Since 2001, the Dayton-Springfield metropolitan area has lost 32,000 jobs, or 7.5 percent of its labor force. Most of the lost jobs, 27,000, were in the manufacturing sector, which has lost more than one of every three jobs in the last seven years.
"We are the leading, bleeding edge of manufacturing in terms of job losses," said Richard Stock, director of the Business Research Institute at the University of Dayton.
No manufacturing sector has shed more blood than Dayton's automotive and auto-parts industry. As late as 2006, Montgomery County, where Dayton is located, was home to five Delphi Corp. automotive parts plants and a General Motors plant that built sport-utility vehicles. The facilities employed about 11,000 workers who averaged $26 per hour.
Today, only one of the Delphi plants remains open. After cutting the night shift in 2006 and the afternoon shift last month, GM recently announced that the SUV plant in nearby Moraine, Ohio, will close its doors for good on Dec. 23, leaving more than 1,000 employees jobless just in time for Christmas.
That closure and the pending relocation of a DHL package sorting facility at a nearby airport will cost the region another 10,000 jobs next year, experts say.
Known as the "Birthplace of Aviation," Dayton was the longtime home of Orville and Wilbur Wright. However, the area's tradition of innovation and invention go beyond aviation. Local government and tourism brochures proclaim that Dayton, a city of 156,000, holds more patents per capita than any other city in the nation.
At least 30 patents went to local inventor Charles Kettering, who co-founded Delco and invented electric automobile ignition. Other Dayton-based inventions include the cash register, pop-top beverage cans, parking meters, gas masks and the parachute, according to a local tourism website.
Philip Lange, 41, a former GM worker whose father was an electronic design engineer, said the area's flair for innovation could save the local economy.
"We're a town of inventors and we're a town of innovators. I think we need to re-invent ourselves, I still feel good about my hometown. We need to become a town where technology is at the cusp of innovation."
Thirteen years ago, after earning a bachelors degree in English, Lange passed on a teaching career to take a job at the soon-to-be-closed GM plant in Moraine.
His starting wage was $9.88 an hour, but by the time he took a voluntary buyout in May, Lange was earning $27.50 an hour working on the assembly line.
He said he was "shell shocked" when faced with the buyout offer, but he eventually decided to forgo future health and pension benefits in exchange for a $140,000 check. After taxes, Lange figures that the money should support his wife and four children for the next 18 months. In the meantime, he's in a hospitality training program at the job center until he can take classes to become a medical technician.
In other words, he's reinventing himself. But he harbors no illusions about what's in store.
"It's going to be a heck of change," Lange said of the lower pay he's likely to get. "I may have to get a second job. I'm not going to make anywhere near what I made at GM. And I know that."
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