Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek

After a North Carolina Factory Shutdown

  1. A Factory Closes
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    A Factory Closes

    On Jan. 4, 2009, Leviton closed its light switch factory in rural Ashe County, N.C., moving some of its production to Mexico. The plant was one of 63 factories to shut down in North Carolina that year. Four years later, many of its 211 employees have found work, some after long stretches of unemployment. Dozens went back to community college to learn new skills, helped by Trade Adjustment Assistance, a federal program that pays to retrain workers whose jobs are shipped overseas. Most are earning less money.

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  2. Brett Lewis
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    Brett Lewis

    Age: 35
    New job: Machinist, GE Aviation

    Lewis worked at Leviton for 11 years as a tool and dye maker, earning his way up to $33,500 a year. After the plant shut down, he went back to school to become a high school technology teacher. But when he graduated, there were no teaching jobs in the area. Eventually he made his way to GE Aviation, where he works as a machinist assembling jet engines. He works the undesirable night shift and earns less than he did at Leviton.

    “Nobody goes to college and when they graduate, thinking they are going to work third shift somewhere. When you go to college, the plan is that you’re gonna better yourself—not spend your whole life working on the shop floor. When Leviton shut down, I went back to school to get my teaching certification in industrial technology. I thought, maybe this is my chance to go back and finish. And I did, only it didn’t get me a job.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  3. Teresa Wiles
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    Teresa Wiles

    Age: 57
    New job: Assistant manager, Roses department store

    Wiles was a machinist at Leviton. Today she is working as an assistant manager at Roses department store.

    “At Leviton, I was making $12 an hour, plus overtime. Now I’m making $8.50 an hour as assistant manager. I’d go back in a heartbeat.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  4. Shirley Miller
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    Shirley Miller

    Age: 54
    New job: Financial services representative, State Employees’ Credit Union

    After she lost her job at Leviton, where she ran the materials requirement department for 28 years, Miller wanted to go back and finish school, but was denied federal money to do so. She wrote her congressman, and eventually received funds that enabled her to complete a four year degree in accounting. She now works at the State Employees’ Credit Union as a financial services representative, earning $30,000. At Leviton, she was making $45,000.

    “Manufacturing in the United States is just fading away. To walk out of a place you’ve been for 28 years, there was a lot of sadness. I was concerned because of my age and because of my lack of education. Here I was, 50, not old enough to draw retirement, not old enough to draw Social Security, no health insurance.”

    (Corrects Miller's degree)

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  5. Ricky Poe
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    Ricky Poe

    Age: 38
    New job: Currently unemployed

    Poe had been working the receiving department at Leviton since he graduated from high school. He spent a year as a single dad caring for his son. Then he got a job at Gates Corporation, making rubber hydraulic tubing. At Gates, his wages dropped 30 percent. Now Gates has downsized, and Poe is out of work again.

    “My son was a little over a year and a half old when the plant closed down. In a way it kind of helped me because I’m a single parent. I actually got to spend a few years with my son, ’cause I couldn’t afford day care after I lost my job. I can’t say I regret it.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  6. Lisa Absher
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    Lisa Absher

    Age: 45
    New job: Office manager, Ashe County building inspections department

    Absher worked at Leviton for 12 years as a plant manager’s assistant. She got a job working as an office manager for the Ashe County building inspections department.

    “It’s heartbreaking because you work with people for years. Even when you know it’s happening around the country, when it happens to you and people you are close to, you realize how devastating it is. It really hit home because, in all my years of working—I’d worked since I was 14—I’d never lost my job.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  7. Larry Coldiron
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    Larry Coldiron

    Age: 41
    New job: Machinist, GE Aviation

    Coldiron’s last position during his nine years at Leviton was production manager. In a town that has lost its manufacturing base, Coldiron has been laid off from three separate plants. After Leviton closed, he went back to school for office administration, eventually landing a low-paying job at the local Employment Security Commission, until he heard GE was hiring. Now, Coldiron works the night shift as a machinist at GE Aviation for less pay. He doesn’t think he’ll have the chance for mobility that he had at Leviton, but he says he is just lucky to have a job.

    “The days of starting out and working your way up are over.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  8. Joyce Lewis
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    Joyce Lewis

    Age: 63
    New job: Retired early

    After Leviton closed, Lewis couldn’t get a job, so she retired early. At Leviton, she worked as a materials handler for 36 years.

    “I felt like my world was jerked out from under me. I tried to apply for insurance, but they wanted $1,800 a month. If I have no job, how can I pay $1,800 a month? I applied for a job, and people were like, ‘Uh-huh.’ My health issues and age had a lot to do with it.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  9. Joni Banks
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    Joni Banks

    Age: 35
    New job: Certified nurse assistant, Blue Ridge Ear, Nose and Throat, Boone, N.C.

    Banks was a machine operator at Leviton for 11 years. After losing her job, she decided to leave manufacturing and go into health care. She became a home-health aide, and then got a degree as a certified nurse assistant.

    “I am making more now, and I’m a lot happier. The Lord has really blessed me in getting me the job that I’ve got.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  10. Jeff Burkett
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    Jeff Burkett

    Age: 40
    New job: Currently unemployed

    Burkett worked at Leviton for 10 years as an injection molding specialist. He went back to school for architectural technology. But there weren’t any jobs when he got out. Eventually he got a job making hydraulic tubing at a Gates rubber plant. But Gates recently downsized, and now he is out of a job again.

    “There’s lots of panic around the house.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  11. Jamie Lewis
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    Jamie Lewis

    Age: 35
    New job: Machinist, GE Aviation

    After Leviton shut down, Lewis spent a year taking care of his son. Then he went back to school at Wilkes Community College for an industrial technology boot camp, which helped prepare him for a job at GE Aviation, one of the few remaining manufacturing facilities in the county. At GE, Lewis earns $17.37 an hour—he made $18 at Leviton—and also works the night shift.

    “I had just had a kid. I stayed at home with my infant daughter. Pretty much did Mr. Mom stuff. That’s one of the small perks I got from losing my job. But I am in more credit-card debt. I have no savings, because I spent it all on health care. There are some scars there. We’ve got some recovering to do before we can start living again.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  12. James Lambert
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    James Lambert

    Age: 35
    New job: Lean coordinator, Ashe County Memorial Hospital

    Lambert worked for 10 years at Leviton as a product engineer. He changed careers and became a lean coordinator at Ashe County Memorial Hospital.

    “I was front office, so I wasn’t thinking that I would be replaced by robots. When I interviewed at the hospital and I was asked, ‘Why are you switching from manufacturing to health care?’ The answer I gave him was one word: stability.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  13. Glenda Luther
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    Glenda Luther

    Age: 38
    New job: Volunteer coordinator, Ashe County Senior Center

    Luther earned about $28,000 a year as a machinist at Leviton. Through Trade Adjustment Assistance, she went back to Wilkes Community College to get a degree in human services. After that, she got an unpaid internship working at the Ashe County Senior Center. When the position of volunteer coordinator opened up, she took it.

    “You always think in the back of your mind, which factory is going next? When you’re in your mid-30s and you have to start all over again, it’s a little frustrating. You’re scared of what the future may hold. Learning a new field, learning a new trade, and having education to back it up makes me feel very fortunate.”

    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek
  14. Gary Graybeal
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    Gary Graybeal

    Age: 51
    New job: Quality engineer, American Emergency Vehicles

    Graybeal worked for 26 years as a quality engineer at Leviton. He spent 11 months looking for work, before he got a job as a quality engineer at ambulance manufacturer American Emergency Vehicles, where he works the night shift.

    “Real estate was so bad you couldn’t sell your house. You could take a job in Texas, but then you could lose that job too. Everything’s a gamble. In my opinion, the security has gone out of the middle class.”
    Photograph by Annie Collinge for Bloomberg Businessweek