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CHICAGO -  When you talk about a digital divide, you’re probably thinking of inner city kids who don’t have ready access to the Internet. But there’s another group that looks at the digital divide with a growing sense of urgency: unemployed workers. Changing Gears is  public media project looking at the reinvention of the industrial Midwest. In this story, we look at how hard it is to find a job when you don’t have the skills or access to technology.

Students in the Everyday Digital Literacy class, at the Greater Auburn Gresham Community Development Corp.'s Family Net Center (Niala Boodhoo)

Darlene Williams has been out of work since 2005. During that time, she feels like she’s been left out of the digital revolution.

“My computer skills as far as navigating on the Internet since I’ve been off work have really, really fallen by the wayside,” said Williams, who used to work in human resources. Now, she realizes, everything has changed – even the way people use software like Microsoft Office.

Williams lives in Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side. She doesn’t have a home computer. That means to actually apply for jobs, Williams has to depend on outside resources like the library or where I met her, at the Family Net Center. It’s in Auburn Gresham, one of Chicago’s newest five Smart Communities. But Williams also worries that she just doesn’t have the technological savvy you need these days to land a job.

“It’s actually kind of intimidating,” said Williams. “My nieces who are eight or nine are just amazing on a computer. So when I’m sitting there, interviewing, or I’m contemplating going on an interview and I’m sitting there with 22, 23-year-olds, I’m like, “oh no!”,” she said, laughing, adding: “You don’t stand a chance.”

University of Illinois at Chicago professor Karen Mossberger said it’s just a fact these days that even the most basic work requires a level of web savvy that wasn’t the case even a few years ago.

“It’s becoming more integrated not just into high tech jobs but into all kinds of old economy jobs. Even fast food restaurants, offices, manufacturing, trucking and delivery – there are going to be some aspects of technology involved and that’s going to become even more true in the future,” said Mossberger, who teaches public administration. “People who don’t have the basic skills to use technology are at a disadvantage.”

People who don’t lack those skills are also at a disadvantage when it comes to how much money they make – especially compared with coworkers who have the same level of formal education. Mossberger’s done research that shows even among workers with a high school education, those who use the Internet at work on average, make $111 more a week. (To read more of Mossberger’s research on the digital divide, click here.)

She sees digital competency as important not just for individuals, but also for communities and ultimately, the Midwest as a whole as the entire region transitions out of “old economy” jobs that don’t use as much technology.

“I think the region has a challenge in terms of trying to fit into the digital economy – not just for individuals, but for labor markets, and the economy,” she said.


Back at the Auburn Gresham Family Net Center, Desmond Hart is using the computers to apply for work, but, as he says: “I’m not real comfortable with doing it online.”

He’s 34, and been out of a job for two years. He was a carpenter, and he’s worked as a nursing assistant.  He also went back to school to be certified to work on heating and cooling systems.

He spends hours here, almost every day, using their computers to apply for jobs because like Darlene Williams, Hart also doesn’t have home internet access. In Auburn Gresham, about 47 percent of residents have home Internet access. Compare that to 70 percent for the rest of Chicago. (Here’s a 2008 recent report on technology use throughout the City of Chicago.)

The Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. is hoping to improve that with its new Digital Literacy course, said the organization’s technology organizer, Jimmy Prude:

“Some of the things we realize people don’t necessarily understand when they come into the everyday Digital coursework is how to maneuver through the computer, how they understand their computer system, how do they get it work for them,” he said.

Auburn Gresham is one of five Smart Communities in Chicago hoping to improve its digital divide. (Niala Boodhoo)

The class is funded by the Chicago Smart Communities program, which is getting federal stimulus money. Other states have similar initiatives, like the Connect your Community project. That’s a $25 million multistate program that’s trying to get four communities more plugged in: Detroit, Cleveland, Akron and Lorain, Ohio.

For the past six weeks, about a dozen people – including Darlene Williams – have been enrolled in first Everyday Digital Class in Auburn Gresham.

Students who qualify will receive a free laptop at the end of the program.

About half the class is made up of seniors like Billye Wilson.

“My son and my grandson often tell me: You need to get on the Information Superhighway and I say, ‘It’s going a bit too fast right now’,” said Wilson, who is 62.

Even though she’s retired, she’s still looking for work. She saw a job once for working for Commonwealth Edison at home, but it required having a computer – and some basic technology skills.

Now that she’s finished the course, Wilson says she feels more comfortable jumping on that Highway.

“It was quite intimidating, getting on the computer, as far if you pushed this button, the world is coming to an end,” she said, laughing. “Now I’m able to go to the library surf the web. Who knows, maybe soon I’ll be able to mount that big web, you know, ride on into shore.”

Volunteers at the Chicago Food Depository sorting donations. The organization says that 1 in 8 Cook County residents will use a soup kitchen or food pantry. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

As the year comes to a close, there are indications the economy is improving. Retail sales are up, and unemployment rates are dropping. You can look at jobless rates as a statistic – or you can see it in real life terms. Changing Gears is a public media project looking at the reinvention of the Midwest. At food banks across the Midwest, though, we’re seeing that reality is getting in the way of that reinvention.

Download audio file (Food_Banks_web.mp3)

CHICAGO – The line outside All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Ravenswood on Chicago’s North Side wraps around the corner and down the block. It’s Tuesday evening, and dozens are here for the church’s weekly soup kitchen and food pantry.

The line’s full of people you might expect to see at a pantry: grandparents with young kids in tow; a few homeless people. But the line also has quite a few people like Joanne Baier.

“I was actually a teller supervisor at a bank,” Baier said. She worked for Bank of America for seven years before they downsized, and she lost her job.

Since then, she said life has been “hard’.

Fran Holliday sees hard stories like Baier’s even more these days.

“We’re still meeting a lot of neighbors who do not have work, cannot find work, or have just lost their jobs,” said Holliday, the associate rector at the church and the program director for Ravenswood Community Services, the church’s social services arm

Talk to the people who direct food banks across the Midwest – and they say the relationship between unemployment and hunger has become even more pronounced in the past few years.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

“In the last two years our distribution has increased 50 percent,” said Anne Goodman, Executive Director of the Cleveland Food Bank. “There’s simply no way that you can interpret it in any other fashion but to say that unemployment has related directly to food distribution.”

In Detroit, Goodman’s counterpart, DeWayne Wells, said his organization, Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, has experienced a 20 percent increase in need for services this year. There’s even more demand outside the city of Detroit.

“In some of suburbs, a lot of people who were displaced by autos and whose unemployment has run out, we’re seeing much higher than those 20 percent average communities in those communities,” said Wells.

He calls them the “new poor”.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

The warehouse on Chicago's South Side is the size of five football fields. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

Most of it comes from the Chicago Food Depository on the city’s South Side. Its main warehouse is the size of five football fields. It’s full almost to the ceiling with pallets of food – boxes of cereal, crates of mayonnaise, and cartons of fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas and potatoes. Lots of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables are an important part of the food that gets sent out to pantries.

Inside, workers are busy making sure all the orders are correct.

The Chicago area has also seen about a 36 percent increase in need for services over the past three years. The trend among especially new customers is people who have never used any type of social service before.

“People call and say, ‘I know you because I used to make a donation to you. I’m calling today not to make a donation but to ask for help. I need to go to a food pantry and I don’t know where one is’,” said Kate Maehr, the Food Depository’s director.

Maehr said the nonprofit is bracing itself for a new reality of having to deal with the tens of thousands of people in the community who are not going to get jobs quickly.

The holiday dinner at the weekly soup kitchen of All Saint's Episcopal Church on Chicago's North Side.

Inside All Saints, they’re getting ready to serve Christmas dinner to food pantry recipients.

Joanne Baier – the bank teller from Ravenswood is outside. She usually just gets a bag of food and leaves, rather than stay for the meal. Baier has been out of work for two years. A year ago, she finally turned to the food pantry for help.

This Christmas is harder financially than last year for Baier and her husband. He used to have a full-time job, but now can only get part-time work at Target.

The couple is especially grateful for food pantry.

“I think it helps out a lot, so we could pay our bills and our rent,” said Baier.

Baier said she remains optimistic that she will eventually find a job. And, she’s hoping she’ll get the chance to reinvent herself in the New Year.

CHICAGO – Don’t sound a death knell for Midwestern manufacturing just yet. One recent surprise has been an increase in the amount of goods being produced across the region.

076

Download audio file (CG_Cities_Spot_web.mp3)

Some experts think the “next” economy needs to focus on businesses that make products. And the good news is, the Midwest is doing well on this front, according to Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“We’re seeing that a lot of best performing metropolitan economies in the United States – and even on a global scale – are in the Midwest,” he said. Berube is in Chicago this week for a global summit on transforming metro economies.

“Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Louis – these areas actually lead the nation on output growth in the past year, which suggests that they are benefiting from a strong rebound in the manufacturing sector,” he said, adding:

“The manufacturing sector isn’t employing a lot more people – but output is expanding. And that’s a necessary precursor to job growth.”

The Chicago Fed measures midwestern manufacturing output regularly – at last report, it was 0.7 percent. If you’re interested in the idea of output and manufacturing, and smaller employment, The Chicago Fed had an interesting post about this topic this summer.

Mayors from Minneapolis, Philadelphia, LA and Chicago meet Wednesday for the summit – check back with us then, as we’ll be reporting on what they talk about.

ITAStudents

Talk to anyone in the tech community around Chicago and they’ll never fail to mention to you that many of the country’s biggest tech companies were founded by people who at least went to school in Illinois, or who are from here: heavy hitters like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, YouTube (now Google’s) Steve Chen, or PayPal co-founder Max Levchin. Of course, they left and hit it big in Silicon Valley – not in Chicago.  The Illinois Technology Association is trying to change that with their first ever Fall Challenge, where they matchmake top tech students throughout the state with employers who are also based here.

Students across Illinois competed to be here by taking a computer science test – you didn’t have to be officially studying computer tech or engineering, by the way, just have those skills. The top 40 are here in Chicago, Thursday and Friday, to take another exam and to interview with local employers. The highest-scoring student gets gets $5,000 – and everyone gets a chance to be recruited. UPDATE: According to @itabuzz, University of Chicago student Michael Lusignan won.

Next week I’ll be reporting on the role of immigrant entrepreneurs in the Midwestern economy, and how cities like Detroit and Cleveland are trying to attract and retain high-skilled immigrants like these students. In the meantime, it’s a starting effort here in Chicago to avoid brain drain. What are your communities doing?

ReinventionRecipesIf Julia Child had specialized in seafood, she would have been Mike Monahan. He has taught a generation of people in Ann Arbor, MI, how to cook fish, including me.

Growing up, my fish experiences were limited to Fridays and fish sticks. But once I discovered Monahan’s Seafood, in the Kerrytown Market, an entire world opened up. Monahan’s sells everything from Lake Superior whitefish to Copper River salmon to a lobster salad that rivals any you’ll find in Maine.

His shop also carries a full line of smoked fish from Durham’s Tracklements, another Kerrytown shop that’s known nationwide for its quality products.

Along with those ingredients, Monahan’s provides recipes, and lately, it has been cooking fish for its customers. Its small cafe is always busy with diners sampling his chowder, stir fries, fish dishes and the special of the day.

His most popular special is easily his Baja Fish Tacos, available on Mondays. It’s a generous plate, at $8.95, featuring batter-dipped fish, with a slaw made from cabbage, yogurt, sour cream and cilantro. Some folks add hot sauce. Some others add a side of fries. Every Monday, Monahan’s sends out a tweet saying the tacos are ready. By 2 o’clock, they’re gone.

The Changing Gears team descended on Monahan’s recently for lunch and watched Monahan prepare fish tacos. Here’s a look at the video that Niala Boodhoo produced (the recipe follows).

_________________________________________________________
Baja Fish Tacos from Monahan’s Seafood in Ann Arbor, MI
1 1⁄2 cups shredded cabbage
2 limes (1 cut into wedges)
1⁄4 red onion, thinly sliced
2T Sour cream
2T Plain yogurt
1 1⁄2 tbsp. kosher salt + pepper to taste
2 tsp. chili powder
1 package Drake’s batter mix (available at the market)
1 12-oz. bottle beer
1 lb. boneless, skinless red snapper, pollack, cod or mahi-mahi cut into 2″ strips
Canola oil, for frying
8 flour tortillas
Cilantro, chopped
Mexican hot sauce (we like Cholula)

1. In a bowl, combine cabbage, red onion, juice of 1 lime, sour cream, yogurt, and cilantro; season with salt and pepper to taste (chill). In another bowl, mix together 1 1⁄2 tbsp. salt, chili powder, Drake’s (reserve a bit of the Drake’s for dredging) and beer to make a batter.

2. Pour oil into a 5-qt. Dutch oven to a depth of 2″; heat until a thermometer reads 375˚. Sprinkle fish with chili powder and salt. Dredge fish in a bit of dry Drake’s; shake off excess. Working in batches, dip fish in batter and fry until crisp, about 3 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to a rack or brown paper bag set inside a sheet pan; keep warm in oven.

3. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add tortillas; cook, flipping, until warmed. To serve, fill with some of the fish and cabbage, squeeze with lime, and garnish with more cilantro and hot sauce. Repeat.

A delegation of business reporters from the Middle East came by WBEZ today to hear more about Changing Gears. Over coffee and crumb cake, we chatted about Changing Gears, business journalism and international reporting. We also spent some time talking about the Recession and its causes – and the role of the media in all of that. They also asked a great question none of us knew the answer to: what does the BEZ in WBEZ stand for? I’m still trying to find the answer to that one.

In the picture below, in the middle, there’s me, Worldview producer Alexandra Solomon and WBEZ’s South Side Bureau reporter Natalie Moore, who just came back from a reporting trip from Libya, as well as the journalists, who were sponsored by WorldChicago and the U.S. State Department: Sabry Nageh Faiek Andrawes, a journalist from Alm Almal Newspaper in Egypt; Nour Eddin Mahmoud Ghazal, a radio producer at Hayat FM Radio in Jordan; Faisal H R Al-Shammary, a senior economic journalist at Annahar Newspaper in Kuwait; Ali Saleh Al Ajmi, editor at Al Roya Newspaper in Oman; Ali Ali Ahmed Alfakih, the Editor-in-Chief of al-Masdar Newspaper and its website, and Mustafa Nasr Ali Alhiagem, the Economic News Editor with Saba Agency, both from Yemen.

Journalists visit

Thanks for coming by!

Did you hear about Changing Gears on NPR’s Talk of the Nation? If so, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome!
Talk of the Nation host Neil Conan at WCPN

We went on the air in September, and our mission is to report on the reinvention of the industrial Midwest.

Take a listen to our stories on manufacturing, like Niala Boodhoo’s recent report on brownfield sites in Chicago; retraining, like Kate Davidson’s story on former auto worker Joseph Arducan’s efforts to find a new career, and jobs, including the dilemma faced by high school students in Sandusky, Ohio, which was explored by our Cleveland Reporter, Dan Bobkoff.

We also have some fun features for you, like Reinvention Recipes — chefs and food purveyors doing their own part to support the Midwest.

Tell us what you think. Tell us what we should be covering. Please join our conversation and post a comment.

This week’s election brought a new sheen of red to the Great Lakes states: with the Republican party seizing control of governorship and state houses across the region. In many cases, it was the first time the GOP has taken control since 2003. Here’s what this political reinvention could mean for the region.

CHICAGO – The economy was a familiar theme on Election Night, invoked by every new Republican governor in the region: Ohio’s John Kasich; Michigan’s Rick Synder and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

Download audio file (Election.mp3)
Download the audio here

Walker said he would began his first day by declaring an “economic state of emergency”. Kasich pledged to privatize Ohio’s job creation.incoming governors of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

But in the early days after the election, political analysts are being more cautious. University of Illinois’s Brian Gaines said while the economy is the one reason everyone gave for the election, that can mean one thing for voters and another for politicians.

“Some people are thinking about foreclosures, some people are thinking about unemployment. These states – particularly Illinois – have very serious fiscal problems, so all of those can be thought of as the economy,” said Gaines, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Urbana.

Research shows people tend to consider Republicans better at solving economic problems, Gaines said: That’s why they won back control – in many Great Lakes states – not just of the executive branch– but also many statehouses.

He added he thinks claims Midwestern states have always been blue or Democratic are an exaggeration. But he says seeing the region now as entirely Republican is just as simplistic.

“One of the ways people routinely over interpret elections is to just paint the map in red or blue and say look at all the shades of red instead of painting it in shades of pink or purple and say if they did win, it wasn’t by much,” he said.

Two governor’s races – in Minnesota and Illinois – were still too close to call on Nov. 3, but they’re tilting Democratic.

Alan Gitelson is a political science professor at Loyola University in Chicago. He said Nov. 3 sent a “very mixed message” to the Rustbelt region, adding the area’s issues are far too complex to be solved simply by a change in political leadership.

“We have tremendous competition from our borders outside the United States in terms of manufacturing industry production – those problems are not going to go away,” he said.

Republicans may be in control at the state level, but Gitelson thinks improving the local economy depends more on national and international issues like the value of the dollar and the ability of the United States to send its products overseas.

“The Midwest is very dependent on exports, in many different areas from farm machinery to agricultural exports,” he pointed out.

These are issues that are bigger than just the Great Lakes region. And they’re problems that will have to be addressed by Congress – which is now divided between red and blue.

Chrysler Corp. and General Motors both said Thursday they were spending a combined almost $800 million to invest in new small car production in Belvidere, Illinois and Lansing, Michigan.

Chrysler said it would spend $600 million at the Belvidere plant, retaining the 2400 jobs that are there and at a nearby stamping facility. Crain’s Chicago Business is reporting that the company is “expected to build a new generation of Fiat-based vehicles”. Work on the plant expansion, which began this summer, is expected to end 2011.

GM also said on Thursday it will spend $190 million to build a new Cadillac at its Lansing Grand River plant, adding 600 jobs and a second shift to the plant. According to the Associated Press story, the plant has 1,100 workers and already is building the Cadillac CTS and STS sedans. The jobs will be filled by laid-off GM workers.

The Chrysler plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin is on its last shift this week – it’s expected to close its doors on Friday. We reported on the story earlier this week.fiat-chrysler

Chrysler Main GateKenosha, Wisconsin has been a car town for the past one hundred years. Somehow, despite all the upheaval in the auto industry, its factories have kept working. But that finally comes to an end this week, when the Chrysler Engine plant closes, leaving more than 500 people jobless.

Kenosha has worked hard to change its image, and Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo will be following that reinvention story over the coming months. To begin, she looks at the final days of the factory.

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

Around 2:30 p.m., there’s a steady flow of Dodge Caravans, Ram Pickup trucks and Jeep Grand Cherokees streaming in and out of the factory gates at the Chrysler Engine plant in Kenosha.

Early afternoon marks the end of first shift and the start of the second.

A brown historical marker just outside the gate details a short history of Kenosha’s auto production. The sign’s location is a clear nod to the central role this plant has played since the turn of the last century – turning out Motor Trend Cars of the year like the Nash Rambler and the Renault Alliance.

Now, that’s all ending.

“I never thought I’d be retiring at age 53,” said Mike Underhill, who has worked at the Chrysler plant and been a member of the UAW for 23 years. “I really liked my job. I worked with a lot of good people.” Mike Underhill

Underhill’s brother worked at the plant, too. It’s common for many in Kenosha to have had entire families, and multiple generations, work there, like the Starks, who have had three generations employed there.

“My father was here, I’m here, I have a son and a nephew working in the plant right now,” said Glenn Stark, UAW Local 72 president.

Local 72“We had 15,000 people working here back in 1959,” said Stark, as he walked around a near-emtpy union hall, where rows of chairs are neatly lined up.  “Today, around 500. If we have a membership meeting we have three, four hundred members.

Normally, union sits on the other side of the table in opposition to management. But union members worked alongside local Chrysler managers and politicians to keep the plant here. It’s easy to understand why – the factory contributed $50 million a year to the local economy. And those manufacturing paid far more service jobs like at the local Wal-Mart.

Several union members said they gave up a lot in concessions to Chrysler, hoping to keep work here. That was before the company filed for bankruptcy last year. Since then, workers like Underhill say they can’t help but feel the plant’s location in Wisconsin has worked against them.

“Here in the Kenosha, the auto industry, it seems like we’ve always gotten the short stick,” said Underhill. “It seems like it’s always been everything for Michigan and you guys are from Wisconsin, nah, we don’t need ya.”

Chrysler wouldn’t comment on this story. And Underhill and other union members are clear they wish the company well. In fact, their retirement money hinges on Chrysler’s success.

Keith Bosman is Kenosha’s Mayor. He says his first thought when he heard about the plant closing was: “Here we go again”.

Thousands lost jobs twenty years ago, when Chrysler stopped building cars here. That’s when many people in Kenosha feel auto making really ended.

When he was in college, Bosman spent his summers working on the docks of Lake Michigan loading “Kenosha Cadillacs”, what people here called the Ramblers, onto ships.

The mayor’s office is right across the street from those docks where the lakefront factory used to be. The entire area has been redeveloped into parks and condos – many owned by Chicago residents who keep their boats in Kenosha, and come up for the weekend.

“Time marches on, the economy changes, I think people think this is finally the end,” said Bosman.

Kenosha’s changed from being just a car town to having lots of small, new manufacturers, like a medical device company that just moved in. And the city has also worked hard to take advantage of its location between Chicago and Milwaukee and become a transportation and warehouse hub.

But the Chysler plant closing still hurts. The city stands to lose about $500,000 just from property taxes from the factory. Unemployment in Kenosha is already the third highest in the state – it’s 10.1 percent.
Just before he starts job on the second shift, I met up with Glenn Stark’s son, Andrew, at a local Starbucks. He’s 21.

“Everything that my family’s had – going back to my grandpa, to my uncles, my dad – has been provided by that plant,” said Andrew, who has his father’s eyes. “So now that it’s closing it’s odd – it’s rough.” Andy Stark

Andrew’s just worked at the factory for a few months.

He said one of the first things he noticed when he walked in were rows and rows of empty lockers.

Chrysler gave workers about a year’s notice that the plant would close, and many people left. That’s when Andrew started working there. At about $15 a hour, it’s less than half of what veterans make, but Andrew said it beats his old job bartending.

Andrew is studying business administration at the University of Wisconsin’s Parkside campus. He said he worries not just about the workers, but also the effect on other businesses in Kenosha and nearby Racine.

“Especially small businesses — little delis, little bakeries that used to cater to the employees,” he said. “Even the taverns – people would get out of work, they used to go. Well, that’s gone now. What are those people going to do as far as paying their bills?”

It used to be that most of the people in the bar came from the plant. These days, many people work elsewhere around town. But bar patrons still collected 500 signatures for a letter they sent President Obama asking him to keep the plant open.

“You’re taking a big business out of town, a big factory,” said bartender Lea Agazzi, who helped organized the petition. “I mean, it does employ a lot of Kenosha people. You’re taking a lot from our city.”

Mayor Bosman is hoping that another manufacturer, or maybe a group of them, will take over the Chrysler plant. If not, it may be torn down. Either way, Kenosha has to figure out what comes next. And that’s a journey Changing Gears will be watching.

Here’s a great video the Kenosha News did about the history of auto making in Kenosha: