Economists tell us, with mathematical certainty, that America and the world are better because of Mark Wedge's bad luck.
Open trade means countries can make the things where they have the comparative advantage and then trade for everything else. Trading partners shift resources to their most productive use. More things get made more cheaply. The world, economists say, is richer for it.
However, Wedge isn't richer. He and the other Americans who watched as equipment they once operated was crated for shipment to places like Mexico and Indonesia are considerably worse off.
In 1958, the year Wedge was born, Western Electric opened in Oklahoma City. The company was then the nation's 10th-largest manufacturer and the exclusive supplier of telephone equipment to its parent company, AT&T. Construction on the $35 million, 1.2 million square foot plant at Reno and Council Road would be completed in 1961. However, Western Electric already had begun training and production at a small pilot plant leased from the industrial authority. The plant built the switches needed to convert the telephone system to universal dialing so anyone could dial anywhere in the United States without an operator. At its peak in 1970, Western Electric was the city's largest private employer with nearly 9,500 workers. It lost jobs through most of the 1970s but added them again after the plant was converted to making new generation solid state switches. Employment peaked again at 8,000 in 1984, the year AT&T settled a 10-year antitrust battle. Western Electric, renamed AT&T Technologies, remained a part of AT&T. During the next decade, restructuring would mean the elimination of 70,000 AT&T jobs nationwide. Changing world
In 1991, manufacturing accounted for less than 16 percent of American jobs. That was the year Wedge's father retired and Wedge first noticed the world was changing. Waves of people transferred to Richmond from plants closed or sold off. They came first from Baltimore, then Atlanta. Some transferred from the place they had lived all of their lives to finish their last two or three years before retirement. "And my thought was, well, it could happen here," he said. "I hope it don't, but it could. But a lot of people didn't think it would ever happen in Richmond." In 1995, Wedge and his wife decided they could afford their first home. By November, they had found it and their loan was approved. This was about the same time that AT&T announced it would split into three companies. The Richmond and Oklahoma City plants would be part of the third company, eventually named Lucent Technologies. The announcement sent AT&T stock climbing by 11 percent. However, it made Wedge doubt his home-buying plans. "I says, you know I think we should wait in buying this house," Wedge said. "Something about this don't sound right." But at his wife's urging, he closed on the house and moved his family in. At the end of December 1995, the plant closed for two weeks as it always did. On Jan. 2 -- a Tuesday, cold and wet -- Wedge returned to work. After an uneventful shift, he went home at 6 a.m. to sleep. He next remembers his wife shaking him awake. "You didn't tell me your plant was up for sale," she said. "It's all over the news." When Wedge went to work Wednesday, the plant manager confirmed the news that had been leaked to the media. Within a year, the plant would be sold. A new start
Wedge brought his family to Oklahoma City in August 1996 to take a job at the plant that was now part of Lucent Technologies. The Dallas investment company that bought the Richmond plant closed it a year later. But the year Wedge moved here, the Oklahoma City plant set a production record, filling $2.5 billion in orders. Lucent officials talked of a bright future. As sales and profits grew with the telecommunications boom, Lucent stock climbed from its initial offering price of $22 to a peak of more than $84 a share in December 1999. Wedge's wife, initially reluctant to leave Richmond, found she loved Oklahoma City. His brother-in-law and his family and Wedge's grown stepchildren also moved here. Wedge became involved in church work again. He enrolled in business classes at Southern Nazarene University and finished his bachelor's degree in business administration. He hoped for a management job at Lucent. Then the telecommunications boom ended. On Jan. 6, 2000, Lucent announced it would miss its quarterly earnings projections. In a single day, the stock tumbled from almost $73 to $52 a share. By year's end, Lucent's share value would drop below $10. In January 2001, Lucent announced it was cutting 16,000 jobs including all 4,000 in Oklahoma City. The plant would be sold. With a series of layoffs, buyouts and early retirements, the plant had fewer than 1,000 workers when Canadian contract manufacturer Celestica took over in December 2001. Wedge's job survived, but his marriage didn't. He became a single father, caring for his son, William, then a senior at Western Heights High School. Wedge decided he would not move this time. He would take his chances with Celestica and let his son finish high school. Layoffs began almost immediately after Celestica took over. Wedge received his notice in August 2002 that his last day would be Dec. 31. "That was a tough last four months there, knowing that no matter how much work you were going to do ... they kept saying you got to put out the work," Wedge said. "Some people that weren't getting laid off, they were kind of pushing you, saying you got to get the work out. It could be my job. "And it kind of leaves a sour taste in your mouth when you see machines being labeled. They had machines going to Thailand. They had machines going to Mexico. They had machines going to China. It was disheartening to see." In November 2003, Celestica closed the plant. Painful interim
For economists, unemployment comes in a variety of flavors. There's frictional unemployment -- the normal collection of people who are temporarily between jobs. There's seasonal unemployment -- the shopping mall Santas who are in great demand in December but can't find much work in July. There's cyclical unemployment -- the people laid off when the overall economy takes a dive. Then there's structural unemployment, when the skills and experience available in the work force no longer match the changing needs of employers. If the school-age population declines, fewer teachers will find jobs. If manufacturers move their plants to Mexico, American factory workers are out on the street. In the long term, workers and employers adjust and the mismatch disappears. However, the interim can be painful. Wedge began 2003 without a job for the first time since high school. He'd spent more than 25 years making circuit boards and attaching components to them. He was six years short of full retirement. In 2003, manufacturing accounted for 11 percent of U.S. jobs. Wal-Mart was beginning its seventh year as the largest private U.S. employer, having surpassed General Motors in 1997. Oklahoma and the nation were in recession. Unemployment in Oklahoma had risen to 5.2 percent from a low of 2.9 percent in February 2000. It peaked five months later at 6 percent. Wedge used part of his severance to pay off debts. He banked the rest to avoid the tax hit and as insurance in case of emergency. Because his job went to a factory in Mexico, Wedge was eligible for benefits under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program. It pays for education or job training and extended unemployment benefits. At first, he didn't apply for Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits. He hoped to find another job quickly -- nothing to compare with the $20 an hour he made at Lucent, of course. He'd settle for half that. But weeks turned to months without an offer. He applied for the extended benefits and went back to school, taking more business classes and some computer courses. But he continued to look for work, now thinking he could settle for $7 or $8 an hour, about what he receives in unemployment. He spends his time studying -- if his grades drop, he loses his benefits -- doing volunteer maintenance work at his church and hunting for a job. He guesses he's filled out 400 applications since his layoff. The months turned into a year, then two years, and the Christmas Day end to his unemployment benefits nears. Now Wedge lies awake nights thinking about the prospect of living on $5 or $6 an hour. "I'll sleep two or three hours and wake up," he said. "I'm constantly worried about whether I'm going to be able to make it. "How are you going to survive on something like that? "So you worry about that, and that's no way to live."
Mark Wedge: Job search continues
As Mark Wedge's unemployment checks come to an end two years after he was laid off by Celestica, the one thing he is not thinking about is Christmas. "On the surface, I'm mostly trying to put on a happy face," he said. But there won't be gifts this year for his grandchildren - the seven children of his four stepchildren. "If I don't have any money to buy stuff, then I just don't have any money to buy stuff. But deep down, I get emotional when I start to think about it," he said. So this past week he occupied his mind with finishing the college courses he's been taking - he said he believes he did well enough on finals to maintain his A in financial accounting and his B in algebra - and with redoubling his efforts to find a job. He attended yet another job fair and applied with Braum's and Love's Country Stores. He talked with representatives of a temporary agency, but they told him they had nothing for him right now, he said. He was called to an interview Wednesday, only to be told when he arrived that all the positions were filled and there would be no more interviews. Thursday, he filled out forms and took tests at another temp agency. He's scheduled to return Monday for an interview. He remains thankful for his son, William, 21, who still is living with him and helping pay bills from his assistant manager job at a chain pizza restaurant. He said he also feels guilty, knowing William has deferred his dreams to help his father. For William and other young people just starting out, Wedge has this advice, "Save as much money as you can, and be prepared for change."