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Forty-five percent of Americans define themselves as middle class, according to an ABC News poll in 2010. Those polled generally agreed upon some basics of a middle-class lifestyle: They worked in stable jobs, owned homes in safe neighborhoods, owned at least one vehicle, saved a little for retirement and college tuition.

“That set of things is becoming increasingly unattainable for a lot of people,” said Amy Hanaurer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, who spoke to The Columbus Dispatch as part of the newspaper’s wide exploration of what it means to be middle class that was published last week.

The topic is a central and divisive one in Ohio, where presidencies have historically been decided and a current debate rages over Senate Bill 5, a piece of controversial legislation that limits the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Special-interest groups fighting the legislation all claim they’re working on behalf of the middle class.

As part of a five-day series, experts told The Dispatch that globalization has battered the nation’s manufacturing sector, which once formed the crux of Ohio’s middle class. The median wage has declined in Ohio more than any other state since 2000, according to census figures.

In the wake of that economic devastation, The Dispatch sought out to define the middle class. You can find out what they learned, how Ohioans have coped with the recession, how they’ve reinvented themselves and lowered their expectations.

(The archive of the entire series can be found here).

The series raises important questions about how Americans view themselves in the aftermath of the Great Recession – and how they handle the ever-present fear of a double-dip recession on the horizon.

Do you consider yourself middle class? At what income level did you arrive in the middle class? What are hallmarks of a middle-class lifestyle? We’d like to hear from you.


Forty-five percent of Americans define themselves as middle class, according to an ABC News poll in 2010. Those polled generally agreed upon some basics of a middle-class lifestyle: They worked in stable jobs, owned homes in safe neighborhoods, owned at least one vehicle, saved a little for retirement and college tuition.

“That set of things is becoming increasingly unattainable for a lot of people,” said Amy Hanaurer, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, who spoke to The Columbus Dispatch as part of the newspaper’s wide exploration of what it means to be middle class that was published last week.

The topic is a central and divisive one in Ohio, where presidencies have historically been decided and a current debate rages over Senate Bill 5, a piece of controversial legislation that limits the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Special-interest groups fighting the legislation all claim they’re working on behalf of the middle class.

As part of a five-day series, experts told The Dispatch that globalization has battered the nation’s manufacturing sector, which once formed the crux of Ohio’s middle class. The median wage has declined in Ohio more than any other state since 2000, according to census figures.

In the wake of that economic devastation, The Dispatch sought out to define the middle class. You can find out what they learned, how Ohioans have coped with the recession, how they’ve reinvented themselves and lowered their expectations.

(The archive of the entire series can be found here).

The series raises important questions about how Americans view themselves in the aftermath of the Great Recession – and how they handle the ever-present fear of a double-dip recession on the horizon.

Do you consider yourself middle class? At what income level did you arrive in the middle class? What are hallmarks of a middle-class lifestyle? We’d like to hear from you.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Goodbye Cleveland, hello Chicago. A Cleveland-area steelmaker could receive more than $1 million in financial incentives to move its headquarters to downtown Chicago, Crain’s Chicago Business reported this morning. JMC Steel Group Inc. could bring 50 new employees in the move. Chicago’s Community Development Commission will hear a proposal to provide $1.1 million in incentives Tuesday. Crain’s writes the approval would “represent another victory for Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” who has touted several job victories since taking office.

2. Ford faces UAW strike. A Wednesday deadline looms on contract talks between United Auto Workers officials and Detroit automakers, although representatives on both sides say the discussions could be extended. UAW president Bob King tells our partner station Michigan Radio that a strike is not a “goal” of the talks, but others believe a strike could happen at Ford. Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman, says union members deserve to receive cost-of-living adjustments surrendered during the recession.

3. Obama will speak in Ohio. President Obama will continue the campaign for his $447 billion jobs bill in Columbus, Ohio, today. He’ll emphasize part of his proposal that marks $25 billion for school building and renovation while speaking at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. It’s part of Obama’s plan to fight for the American Jobs Act on the turf of his Republican counterparts. The Ohio visit, in House Speaker John Boehner’s home state, comes four days after Obama visited House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s district in Richmond, Va.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Goodbye Cleveland, hello Chicago. A Cleveland-area steelmaker could receive more than $1 million in financial incentives to move its headquarters to downtown Chicago, Crain’s Chicago Business reported this morning. JMC Steel Group Inc. could bring 50 new employees in the move. Chicago’s Community Development Commission will hear a proposal to provide $1.1 million in incentives Tuesday. Crain’s writes the approval would “represent another victory for Mayor Rahm Emanuel,” who has touted several job victories since taking office.

2. Ford faces UAW strike. A Wednesday deadline looms on contract talks between United Auto Workers officials and Detroit automakers, although representatives on both sides say the discussions could be extended. UAW president Bob King tells our partner station Michigan Radio that a strike is not a “goal” of the talks, but others believe a strike could happen at Ford. Gary Walkowicz, a bargaining committeeman, says union members deserve to receive cost-of-living adjustments surrendered during the recession.

3. Obama will speak in Ohio. President Obama will continue the campaign for his $447 billion jobs bill in Columbus, Ohio, today. He’ll emphasize part of his proposal that marks $25 billion for school building and renovation while speaking at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. It’s part of Obama’s plan to fight for the American Jobs Act on the turf of his Republican counterparts. The Ohio visit, in House Speaker John Boehner’s home state, comes four days after Obama visited House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s district in Richmond, Va.


In his jobs speech to a joint session of Congress last night, President Obama made it clear he’s betting on small businesses and government-works projects to create jobs. Prior to the speech, we asked people across the Midwest which industry they would bet on to turn around the economy. Several were on the same page as the President. Although many of them lacked his optimism, and think small business is a safe bet.

William Mayor of Barbeton, Ohio said, “I doubt that any single industry, in the normal sense of the word, can salvage our economy.”

Jeremy Peters of Ypsilanti echoed that sentiment. “Economic prosperity will only come from teamwork,” he said. Rather than picking an industry, Peters would like to see officials focus “on a plethora of small businesses across all genres and offering help and credits where needed.”

The Midwest, still battling the effects of the auto industry’s collapse, could be understandably gun shy about hitching its dreams to a new economic magic bullet. But whether its American optimism or desperation, plenty of people said if they had money to invest, they would bet on a variety of industries including: wind power, high-tech, bio-medical, advanced manufacturing, alternative energy, tourism, and yes, even autos.

Individuals aren’t the only ones ready to try to pick an economic winner. Educational institutions and local and state governments across the Midwest have put significant amounts of money into certain industries. Sometimes, there are federal dollars being leveraged as well.

A few examples of these investments can be found in Western Michigan spending hundreds of millions of state and federal dollars to attract advanced battery manufacturing companies.  Northeastern Ohio and the Detroit Metro area are still investing heavily in auto manufacturing, and Ann Arbor is working on cultivating a culture to nurture tech start-ups.

Thomas Sudow of Beachwood, Ohio would put his money on the bio-medical industry. “The Midwest has a reputation of making things and a lot of the skills needed to manufacture medical device are located in the Midwest,” he said. Both the Cleveland area and West Michigan in particular are investing heavily in health care, building new facilities and trying to attract biomedical device manufacturers.

Policy makers across the region are willing to make such broad and deep investments in the hopes that more jobs can be created. In Washington, D.C, President Obama called on Congress last night to pass his job bills quickly. The bill faces an uncertain future, as do many of these emerging industries in the Midwest.


What’s this photo?

Ford's Rouge plant, by Charles Sheeler

It symbolizes what many people thought was the future of manufacturing, 84 years ago. As Changing Gears looks at where manufacturing is headed, this iconic picture reminds us of the importance of industry to our region.

This is one of a series of photographs by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), an artist and photographer who was fascinated by modern America.

His work was called “precisionism” — hard, flat, colorless, linear  — and it fit the 1920s, when Sheeler photographed Henry Ford’s vast Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.

The first time I saw Sheeler’s photos, I was thunderstruck. His work represented everything that Detroit symbolizes to me — majestic, powerful, daunting, where the individual is overshadowed by the institution. I’ve always been surprised that Sheeler’s work is not better known, given the impact that industry has on America’s image of itself.

“It is difficult, today, to imagine the enthusiasm with which Americans (and especially American managers) in the 1920s embraced the idea of the machine as a model and regulator of working life,” Robert Hughes wrote in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.

Sheeler, a native of Philadelphia, was already well known in the art world when the advertising agency N.W. Ayer hired him on Ford Motor Company’s behalf for a campaign meant to celebration the completion of the Rouge.

It was the culmination of Henry Ford’s vision of building every aspect of a car from scratch, starting with raw materials such as iron ore and ending with the new Model A driving off the assembly line. To Ford, the Rouge represented the future of manufacturing.

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do,” Ford was known to have said.

Powerhouse at the Rouge, by Charles Sheeler

Sheeler spent six weeks inside the Rouge complex, which was home to 75,000 workers, 93 separate structures, rail lines and docks on 2,000 acres along the border between Detroit and Dearborn. From 1927 to 1942, when production ceased for World War II, the complex produced 15 million vehicles, even accounting for the slowdown caused by the Great Depression.

The photographer was given complete freedom to roam the complex. The Rouge series included  32 photographs, some of which were published in Vanity Fair magazine.The photos emphasize the vastness of the buildings and machinery, which dwarf the few people that Sheeler depicted in the images. Sheeler followed his Rouge photographs with paintings of the complex.

The photos are occasionally on view in the nation’s art museums, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has many of Sheeler’s other works.

American Landscape, by Sheeler

You can still see many of the buildings and vistas that Sheeler captured in his photographs, especially the giant smoke stacks that still dominate the Dearborn landscape. And, The Henry Ford in Dearborn offers a tour `that gives visitors a sample of what the assembly plant is like.

 


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Cleveland casino hiring. Today marks a milestone in the development of Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars to refurbish a downtown building, the gambling company is now seeking employees. It is filling 500 positions for dealers – no experience necessary – in positions that will pay as much as $40,000 per year, according to The Plain Dealer. A professor from nearby John Carroll University predicted the jobs would have a multiplier effect on the region. “This is the evidence that it wasn’t just hoopla or overstatement,” LeRoy Brooks told the newspaper. “They’re actually putting up the capital, the training costs.”

2. Sun power, meet sunflower. A Wisconsin energy company is building one of the largest solar projects in the state, and allowing individual investors to buy a stake in the project. The Convergence Energy Solar Farm began construction last year on 14 acres, and will be the state’s second-largest solar farm when completed. “We’re really striving to build local economies,” Steve Johnson, the company’s VP of business development told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “It’s providing an opportunity for people who want to invest in solar and put a little more clean energy on the grid.”

3. Groupon may postpone IPO. Chicago-based Groupon may postpone its upcoming IPO, a delay it attributed to market volatility, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the development. That may not be all. Marketwatch reported today that the company may be skirting the “quiet period” required by businesses once they file papers with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and opines that Groupon CEO Andrew Mason appears “hell-bent on becoming the poster child for business schools and budding entrepreneurs on how not to go public.”


Depending on who you ask, American manufacturing is either: the way out of our financial mess, or it’s dead. Whatever you think, there’s no denying that manufacturing has changed. That’s the story of Thogus Products in Avon Lake, Ohio.

One thing I kept hearing over and over again reporting this story is that there’s this big misperception about manufacturing. The popular image is of dirty smokestacks and factories filled with workers repeatedly pulling the same lever. Matt Hlavin has a very different idea for the company he runs.

Matt Hlavin stands in front of a rapid prototyping and manufacturing machine. These can produce small batches of plastic products quickly and cheaply. This is the future, he says. Most Thogus production is done by robots. A Thogus worker monitors production in the factory. Thogus's factory and headquarters in Avon Lake, OH A worker prepares products for shipment.

“I wanted to create a Google of manufacturing environment so it’s young and vibrant and balanced between youth and experience,” Hlavin says.

Walk around the factory floor at Thogus Products, and you begin to see what Hlavin means. It’s clean and organized. Young staff use iPads and computers to keep an eye on each product line. Robots do most of the labor, churning out highly engineered plastic parts for medical devices and the food and beverage industry.

“I don’t consider us a manufacturing company anymore,” Hlavin says. “We’re a technology and services company.”

This has been a big transformation for Thogus. It used to be companies would come to them and say: “we need 20,000 switches made, can you do it?” And, Thogus would quote a price and make them. It was a volume business. Then, at the end of 2008, Matt Hlavin took over the company from his late mother.

“Worst time to take over a manufacturing company,” he says. “The economy is in shambles. The stock market is crashing. Banks are a mess.”

But Hlavin saw this as a time to reinvent the company. Volume was no longer the answer. It was now about skill and technology. Hlavin cut half Thogus’s staff. Those remaining were deemed on board with the company’s mission, and were given ten percent pay hikes. He invested $5 million in new equipment.  But most importantly, the jobs changed.

“We hired our first engineer right out of school,” Hlavin says as he walks around the factory floor. “James was a plastics processing engineer. I brought him in to be the first of my new engineering team.”

In just two years, Thogus went from having no engineers on staff to 15. Instead of just making whatever part a client wants, Thogus now helps design the product. The engineers range from biomedical to civil. Hlavin sees the company now as more of a full service consultant.

“It’s a Burger King economy,” he says. “It’s have it your way, right away, mass customization, not mass production. India and China are built for mass production.”

If you’ve ever looked at a graph of manufacturing employment in the US over the past few decades, it’s scary. It points straight down. As I walked around Thogus, I kept wondering: is this the future?

“I’d like to see it be the future of manufacturing  in America. I don’t think it’s automatic,” says Sue Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University. She says it would be great if more factories went this way, instead of cutting wages, but it’s hard.

“And it’s particularly hard for individual companies to do it,” she says. “I salute this company. I think it’s a very brave and skilled entrepreneur who was able to make these coordinated investments. He did a number of things all at once.”

She says it’s only a small minority of firms that are undergoing this kind of change.

But it’s working for Thogus. In just the two years of its transformation, its revenues have more than doubled, but it’s done so with a smaller staff.

“Transactional labor is going away,” Matt Hlavin says. “You don’t walk out of high school or wherever you went to school and walk into a factory and get a job. You’re going to have to work on a skill set.”

And for those who don’t? “There’s always food service,” he says.

By the way, Hlavin says his company is installing equipment to let the factory run overnight unattended. Look for a story about “lights out manufacturing” next week from Changing Gears reporter Kate Davidson.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Job insecurity for Ohio’s teachers. Entering the school year, Cleveland Metropolitan Schools officials thought they had a $23 million surplus. But that was before the district accounted for the loss of 2,000 students from seven closed schools. Our partner station Ideastream reports that means a decrease in state funding and an increase in unpredictability for the district’s teachers, some of whom have faced layoffs multiple times in the past six months.

2. Illinois manufacturers are upbeat. Manufacturers in Illinois are more optimistic about the state of their industry than counterparts nationwide, according to a survey released Monday. Crain’s Chicago Business reports that 52 percent of Illinois companies polled were thriving or growing compared to 44 percent nationwide.  Sixty-four percent in Illinois said they planned to add to their workforce in the coming year, but 60 percent also fear a weak economy will slow their business.

3. One company’s trash, another’s treasure? Two Cleveland-based firms are using green technology to improve the efficiency of garbage trucks, and hopefully their profits. The Wall Street Journal reports today that Eaton Corp. and Parker Hannifin Corp. have designed rival hydraulic systems that could save on fuel, reduce pollution and brake wear. The technologies can be applied to other vehicles. The Journal also reports the two firms have engaged in some, ahem, trash talking, about their rival’s product.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Illinois casino bill teeters. As Chicago alderman and Mayor Rahm Emanuel continued lobbying for a gambling expansion bill, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has intensified his criticism of it, according to our partner station WBEZ. The governor said he has reservations about slot machines at horse tracks around the state. Lawmakers have not yet sent a gambling bill, which paves the way for a Chicago casino, to the governor yet for fear he would veto it.

2. Prison plans scaled down. Ohio will sell the Lake Erie Correctional Institution to a private corporation for $72.7 million, but officials have backpedaled from initial plans to sell four other facilities. The Columbus Dispatch reported the development Thursday. Ohio administrators released a statement  that said “it was not in Ohio taxpayers’ best interest” to pursue further sales. As Ohio readies to make one sale, The St. Petersburg Times carries a cautionary tale today about the shift toward private prisons.

3. General Motors sales rise. U.S. sales of General Motors autos increased 18 percent in August, the Detroit Free Press reported Thursday. GMC led the gain with sales climbing 40.3 percent year-over-year. The Chevrolet Cruze sold more than 20,000 cars for the fifth straight month, and was GM’s best-selling car for the third consecutive month. GM has gained market share in 7 of the past 8 months, the company’s vice president of U.S. sales operations told the Free Press.