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Originally published April 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 20, 2005 at 6:32 PM

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Laid-off Boeing workers struggle in new economy

In the past six years, this state lost about 100,000 manufacturing jobs, half of them in aerospace. Since their jobs at Boeing disappeared, longtime factory workers ...

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Introduction:

In the past six years, this state lost about 100,000 manufacturing jobs, half of them in aerospace. Since their jobs at Boeing disappeared, longtime factory workers have searched for new ways to support their middle-class lifestyles.

Most who found jobs are now in the service sector, where they earn considerably less. Some carefully mapped their career changes, only to see their plans fall apart. Many are striving to refashion their sense of identity and preserve their aspirations.

The work force's move away from manufacturing signifies more than just a change in employment statistics. It also means a dislocation in the lives of once-comfortable workers who now struggle to survive in a shifting economy.

Bob Matetich: "You do what you have to do to make money"

On a Friday last September, Bob Matetich wandered the lot at the Saturn of Renton car dealership.

With no buyers in sight, he checked inventory to keep boredom at bay. No sales meant no income. It had been six days since he had sold a car.

As a salesman at Saturn's low-commission operation, his first permanent job since his 2001 layoff from Boeing, Matetich was averaging just $250 per sale.

He's not a natural salesman, he confessed, unlike his high-energy co-worker. "He's selling when he's breathing," Matetich said. "I'm mediocre."

Still, he stuck with the job for more than a year for its minimal health benefits.

Twenty years with Boeing had once earned Matetich a comfortable life.

"You leave that behind you when you leave manufacturing and get into the service economy," he said. "You do what you have to do to make money. It's a hustle."

An enormous U.S. flag fluttered above the dealership on Renton's auto row, as if the spot were the epicenter of the new American post-manufacturing economy.

Though he has a home in suburbia, Matetich, 54, is living close to the economic edge.

His face shows a constant strain and his tall frame seems stooped by the pressure of his changed circumstances.

"I don't like to dwell too much on the past, on what I've lost," he said. "I don't want sympathy. I want a job."

He's proud of his long work history. He has led projects; he knows database software; he has a business degree. But the past three years have stripped away his ego.

Age: 54

At Boeing: 20 years

Laid off: December 2001

Last job/salary at Boeing: Purchaser at spare-parts distribution center, $39,000

After layoff: Unemployed; part-time school-bus driver; car salesman

Current job/salary:

Security guard, $24,000

"I've found that my life kind of goes with the economic flow," Matetich said. "When the economy is doing well, I do OK. When the economy is doing badly, I do badly.

"I guess that puts me in the lower margins of the economic scale."

Matetich first joined Boeing in 1978, then was laid off during the big recession of 1982, when state unemployment reached 11.6 percent.

He worked a spell as a security guard, then was rehired by Boeing in 1984. He did various inventory-control and lab-technician jobs, mostly at its Auburn plant.

In 1999, he miscalculated. Thinking the Auburn plant's future was not secure, he jumped to a nonunion job in purchasing at the SeaTac spare-parts distribution center.

He'd heard there had been no layoffs in that division since 1972. But that didn't spare him in the great wave of job cuts that followed the attacks of 9/11.

Matetich's termination notice was waiting when he got back from burying his father in Florida — just before Christmas.

He was unemployed for a full year, then drove a school bus part time for six months before he took the job at Saturn.

Matetich had been earning a modest $39,000 a year when he left Boeing. Together with his wife's income over the years, it was enough.


KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Now a security guard, Bob Matetich has predictable hours and a consistent paycheck — but considerably less income than during his Boeing years.

He lives in a house bought 17 years ago when prices were low, in a Federal Way neighborhood dotted with big mature firs and lined with well-kept lawns and basketball hoops hung over two-car garages.

In 2003, Matetich barely made the property-tax bill.

On a Monday morning in September, Matetich was at home on his day off from Saturn.

His younger daughter, 22, was at work at a Southcenter restaurant. His wife was out temping, doing data-entry and customer-service work.

An older daughter is married to a former Boeing assembly mechanic — who also was laid off and is going through nursing college.

Matetich reflected on his vulnerability to the economic downturn. While he faults himself, he also blames a factor outside his control: the shift of jobs to low-wage countries.

He recalled that Boeing sent one of his supervisors to China in the late 1980s to assess whether work from his unit could be outsourced there.

Matetich acknowledges the company's rationale: Outsourcing to China will help develop that country's economy and position Boeing to sell more planes there. Matetich compares it to Henry Ford's policy of paying his workers enough so that they could buy his cars.

But he sees himself on the losing end.

"I can't afford to buy a car. I can't afford to fly anywhere," he said. "They've lost one consumer."

After his layoff, Matetich was ready, even eager, to move away from the Northwest. His wife didn't want to leave their daughters.

In 2002, despite her reluctance, he made two trips to Atlanta to seek work. He came back empty-handed.

"We blew too much money doing that," he said. "We couldn't try again."

Matetich kept searching for something better. In October, after 15 months selling cars, he went back to the company he'd worked for during his last layoff 22 years ago.

He was hired as a security guard.

Now, working a 40-hour week on the swing shift, he drives around to check up on Seattle-area businesses. He locks up a cemetery and a public-park building. He earns $11.50 an hour.

Last month, his wife got a full-time, permanent job as an administrative assistant at a company in Auburn, paying about the same.

For Matetich, the job change means a return to predictable hours and a consistent paycheck — though significantly smaller than what he earned three years ago at Boeing.

And there is one other plus.

"I don't think they are going to off-shore this job," he said.

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