My uncle Pete works as hard as anybody I’ve ever met. He — like his father before him — has worked his whole life at a paper mill in Oregon City, Oregon.
Most men in my family have worked there at some point, and many of my friends’ fathers did too. It’s been a major employer for the little town I grew up in for as long as I can remember.
Until now. The mill’s closing, and 175 people are losing their jobs.
My uncle has been there almost 40 years. He’s supported his wife and kids (and other extended family) by working long, hard hours.
I don’t mean this to be a family sob story, because with unemployment the way it is, things are tough all over. Market conditions change, and economic realities come to certain industries. That’s just real.
Unfortunately, that means a lot of hardworking people who have spent decades at a trade find themselves in the lurch. When markets fail workers, that’s where public investments should come in.
This is exactly why we need programs that re-train workers. North Carolina’s community college system is a great example. My mom got her nursing degree from community college when she was in her 40s, filling a need for society while improving her own family’s station in life.
As she prospered, so did I. We both wound up being more productive, paying more in taxes, and thus paying more into the system for the next kid and his mom that needed to go to school.
But she wouldn’t have been able to access school without financial aid. Countless people with intelligence, drive, and determination are in the same situation. That’s why it’s so important to make sure people can access education: it helps them, and it helps America.
My mom also benefited from timing. None of these paper mill workers at my uncle’s shop asked for their industry to fundamentally change as they neared retirement age, or for their pension to disappear as their company declared bankruptcy.
These are hardworking people that played by the rules. Their stories are all too common across America today, and there but for fortune go any of us.
When we ignore situations like this, we not only harm families, we waste human capital that can build a better America. Folks like my mom and my uncle could do virtually any type of work and be successful.
Like most people in these situations, they’re not afraid of working hard. They just need a chance.
Public investments like our community college system give people like this a chance. And we all deserve that.