Monday, March 22, 2010

Storm Warnings in the Sun Belt?

I wrote this column on March 29, 1983, when Michigan was in the midst of a horrific depression.  The rest of the country was in the midst of a recession, but, as always, manufacturing states like Michigan were hit harder than most.  The unemployment numbers in Michigan in 1983 reached 14.6%, a number not seen again until 2009.  The Midwest was known as the "rust belt" as more and more companies moved to the southern lower-wage "right-to-work" states. (The "Sun belt")


Storm Warnings in the Sun Belt?

The March 29 [1983] issue of the Houston Chronicle carried 120 pages of employment ads.  No, that's not a typo. . . 120 pages.  It boasts the largest classified ad section of any paper in the country. (The same week's Detroit News carried 17 1/2 ad pages.)

Big things are happening in Houston and apparently the folks up north have gotten the word.  The Chronicle says that in the last six months, their Sunday sales in Michigan have leaped from 200 to 3,000 papers a week.
The Little Professor bookstore in Dearborn alone has a guaranteed sellout of their 1,000-plus weekly order--sometimes within the same day of arrival.  That in addition to their 800-900 copies of the Dallas Morning News.

At first it was kind of fun, those Houstonians being the big cheeses, but now they're wondering if 120 pages of employment opportunities isn't carrying southern hospitality a little too far.

There's consternation down there in oil country.  The front page headlines of that same issue of the Chronicle read, "New 'Okie' comes from Michigan and Houston is his California".

Inside, article headlines read: "New 'Okies' swarm from Michigan to Houston's job-rich land of plenty"; "Houston, Dallas papers snapped up in Michigan"; "Snow Belt exodus--Why 1,000 a week stream here--jobs", and "Hillbillies in Michigan,Yankees here".

The gist of it all is that the jobless from the north are swarming into Texas without so much as a hint of a job.  They're coming in vans and pickup trucks containing all their worldly goods, "assuming", said one spokesman, "that the streets are paved with gold".

Well, they are paved with gold for the professionals, the engineers, the accountants, the chemists and the computer experts, but for the run-of-the-mill factory worker, they want it made clear there just aren't any factories down there.  At least not yet.

And if, by some chance, the factory worker is fortunate enough to find a job similar to the one he left, he can expect to make anywhere from $5 to $10 an hour less than he made in Michigan.  There are few unions down there and they seem to like it that way.

I did a little rundown on the 120 pages of ads and this is what I came up with:

Professional (managers, supervisors, consultants, etc.)  22 pp.
Engineering-Technical  20 pp
Data Processing (computer operators, programmers, etc.)  10 pp
Admin. - financial (accountants, auditors, analysts)  5 1/2 pp
Sales  7 1/2 pp
Office - Clerical  25 pp
Crafts-skills-trades (machinists, toolmakers, welders)  9 pp
Medical  8 pp
Misc.  (hairdressers, food service, maintenance, etc.)  13 pp

Good news for teachers is that there a shortage in Texas critical enough so that they are combing the northern countryside for candidates.  Clericals are in such demand that, if I can believe the personnel placement ads, beginner receptionists can start at $10,000 to $12,000 a year.   (1983 dollars)

That's the good news, if you happen to be one of those people.  The bad news is that Houston hasn't yet made ready for all of their guests.  The housing boom of two years ago is fast becoming a shortage and  the small-townish mass transit system is woefully inadequate, making horrendous traffic jams a way of life.  Sewage and flooding problems are keeping maintenance crews working overtime.

In addition, the city of Houston is regularly running TV ads pleading for additional police recruits to help with the growing crime problem.

Still, with all its faults, a city in the sunny southwest with a newspaper that can carry 120 pages of employment ads has to look pretty good to someone out of work in Detroit with no likely prospects.  And Houston wants you.  That's clear.  They're even going so far as to retrain in some instances.  But they're also asking that you take your time, do a lot of research, and don't burn all your bridges behind you.

Clearly, this is a big step to take--and more and more of you are taking it.  So maybe we should talk some more about this.  Have you been to Texas, or are you planning to go?  Do you have a job waiting?  Do you know someone who is down there now?  Are they making it?  What are they doing?

Write me in care of this newspaper and we'll do a local follow-up in a few weeks, if the response is there.

(Note:  I heard from one guy who said he was going down and would let me know how it was when he got there.  Never heard from him again.)

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