The latest wave of plant closures, beginning around the turn of the millennium, hit companies like Dana Corp., Agere Systems, Luden's, Glidden and Baldwin Hardware. Some 9,300 jobs evaporated between 2001 and 2011 — nearly a quarter of Berks County's manufacturing base, according to Penn State economists Theodore Alter and Theodore Fuller. They were replaced by jobs in lower-wage sectors like education and especially health care, a phenomenon that has played out around the state and nation.
"The manufacturing sector was decimated, and the people who had those skills had no place to go," said Karen Rightmire, a longtime United Way official who now runs the Wyomissing Foundation, a private philanthropy outside Reading. "The days of the factory job that just required a strong back are gone."
Nationally, manufacturing declines accounted for 40 percent of the increase in joblessness from 2000-2011, according to labor economist Erik Hurst. And the middle class was hit hardest.
For high-income college graduates, "It doesn't look like there was a recession," said Hurst, of the University of Chicago. "For lower-skilled (manufacturing) workers, the recession comes along, you get a big decline in employment, and it hasn't rebounded at all."
The jobs picture isn't entirely dark. Manufacturing is still the No. 1 employer in Berks County, led by battery maker East Penn Manufacturing Co. and a specialty steel company. Economic development officials say they've seen a recent uptick in factory hiring, and graduates of local technical career programs are virtually guaranteed a job. Berks County has placed a huge bet on worker training, launching a "Career in 2 Years" marketing campaign that encourages people to become certified in high-skilled manufacturing fields like precision machining and robotics.
But not everyone has the aptitude or desire.
Vicki Henshaw serves on a rapid-response team that helps laid-off factory workers. She said they are typically older, with high school diplomas and outdated skills.
"You know the struggle they are going to have to even come close to the wage they were receiving," said Henshaw, executive director of labor-affiliated United Community Services in Reading. "You look at them and you feel the despair. Their lives are now in utter turmoil."
While the manufacturing picture has brightened a bit nationally — with the U.S. adding hundreds of thousands of jobs in recent years — it's an open question whether the sector is truly making a comeback or the gains are merely cyclical following the recession.
Brian Waldbiesser, for one, isn't betting on a manufacturing renaissance.
The 41-year-old father of two saw little choice but to go back to school after losing his $19.50-an-hour job at battery maker Exide Technologies, where he had put in 19 years. After a year of unemployment, he is struggling to pay the bills, and he no longer considers himself middle class.
Waldbiesser, who has tapped a federal program for workers hurt by foreign competition, is studying psychology — and psyching himself up for better times.
"I don't want this to be a sob story about me," he said. "What I would like for people to take from my story is that even though I am struggling, and it is radically different from where I was, if you seize the opportunities that are in front of you, there are opportunities out there to better yourself."