The trade war has come too late for Santiago Pimentel Jr.
Laid off twice in the past decade from his job at a chemical factory in Peabody, Pimentel has been unemployed for a year and a half. He now regrets turning down several other jobs since then because they didn’t pay anywhere close to the $21 wage he had earned.
“Losing your job in the way that I did is a slow burn, and it hurt the whole way through,” the 30-year-old said. “We were just pawns in the world’s stupidest chess game.”
President Trump is in the third year of his efforts to revive American manufacturing, but workers like Pimentel say they have little to show for it. Companies are still closing facilities and relocating their production lines abroad, and the number of laid-off workers in Massachusetts who request retraining because they lost their jobs to offshoring has increased since Trump was elected.
Nationally, the number of manufacturing jobs has been increasing since 2010 — it’s now at nearly 13 million. But in pockets of the country, including Massachusetts, manufacturing is shrinking as companies continue to move production lines overseas. Pimentel’s employer, for example, closed its Peabody plant in 2017 and shifted production to Germany, where labor was less expensive, according to a petition filed for the workers with the US Department of Labor.
“We have not seen companies come back,” said Robert Nakosteen, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Global forces are hard to overcome with individual country policies.”
Massachusetts lost 1,700 manufacturing jobs in the 12 months through July, according to the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. During that time, the state gained 37,300 jobs overall.
Meanwhile, the number of laid-off factory workers asking the state and federal governments for job assistance and retraining has increased since 2016. Over the past 12 months, eight petitions were filed on behalf of 832 workers related to factory closings, according to government filings; that’s compared to petitions for 609 laid off workers over the same time period two years ago.
Workers who lose their jobs because of trade-related business decisions — usually to relocate factories or outsource production to cheaper countries — can participate in training programs and receive income assistance that goes beyond unemployment compensation through a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance.
The programs, administered by state labor offices, offer unskilled workers up to 130 weeks of training, which can include complete apprenticeships and two-year programs, such as for respiratory therapy. Workers can also receive supplemental weekly income during training.
“We’re talking about an associate’s degree, as opposed to a short-term training program in some cases,” said Ken Messina, manager of the state’s Rapid Response team, speaking about the high demand for workers in Massachusetts.
Trump’s 2020 budget proposes to refocus the program on apprenticeship and on-the-job training to “ensure that participants are training for relevant occupations in today’s competitive workforce.” But it also calls for cutting the funding by $51 million. The program received $790 million in 2018.
Massachusetts has an unemployment rate of just 2.9 percent, and some employers say they are scrambling to find qualified workers. Yet some casualties of the trade war are still struggling. For example, one quarter of workers in the state who had received TAA assistance as of July 2018 have not yet found employment, the state reported.
“We have all of these nice programs on the books, but they are not enforced and carried out the way they were intended to,” said Howard Rosen, executive director of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Coalition, which provides petitioners with legal resources.
Often, the states don’t use all of the money allocated for the program, and many displaced workers don’t know about it, Rosen said. When it began in 1962, most manufacturing workers were represented by unions that would advocate on their behalf, but that’s not the case anymore.
Many laid-off factory workers spent decades in lower-level manufacturing jobs and don’t qualify for the vacant positions in today’s market, said Branner Stewart, senior research manager at the Economic and Public Policy Research group at the UMass Donahue Institute.
Also, some Boston-area opportunities might be too far away for a displaced worker, he said, not pay well, or lack good benefits.
“The question is, can they continue to have a less than 45-minute commute to their employer?” Stewart said. “Or would they have to move elsewhere to find gainful employment?”
Specific skills are crucial in the changing economy.
Everett Frias, for example, acquired his license to operate a forklift while he was making blinds for a textile manufacturer in New Bedford at $13 an hour. When the company, Julius Koch USA Inc., closed the plant in 2017, Frias found a job paying nearly $20 an hour driving a forklift in a warehouse that distributes textiles made in Georgia.
Pimentel Jr. has a forklift license, too, but it hasn’t helped him find work.
He’s been through this before. In 2009, the Peabody chemical plant ended production, and both Pimentel and his father, Santiago Pimentel Sr., were laid off and sought TAA assistance. At the time, the younger Pimentel took a job at D’Angelo Grilled Sandwiches that paid $9 per hour, because “the bills don’t stop.”
His father, meanwhile, used the trade assistance to get certified to work on gas heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems after the plant initially closed in 2009.
But the senior Pimentel, 52, hasn’t put that HVAC certification to use. He had made almost $33 an hour at Stahl USA after 31 years there, but now he makes less than $25 an hour at another chemical company, mixing materials used in tubes for medical devices. After the plant closed again, he thought about getting another certification through the trade program but didn’t think the trainings that were available would result in a higher-paying job.
His son also didn’t think the training options would be worth the time. But had the younger Pimentel known how difficult his job search would be, now with a nearly two-year-long gap in his resume and no college degree, he said he would have accepted lower-paying jobs that were available.
“In the end, it did come down to the yearly income,” he said. “The pot wasn’t sweet enough.”