Eleanor Simon '06 Explores Impact of Retraining after Mill Closure

Story posted June 20, 2006

Eleanor Simon '06Eleanor Simon '06

Eleanor Simon '06 was nervous as she set out for Millinocket to pursue her independent study project exploring the relationship between work and self-worth. She had arranged interviews with 12 men who had been laid off in January 2003 after working for years at the same paper mill; they were the second, third, or fourth generation in their families to work at the mill, and its closure devastated the town. Simon came away from those interviews with a rare lesson in resilience and the positive influence of education.

"I thought it would be a somewhat depressing research project," she said. "The town is the complete opposite of what it had been. A lot of homes have been knocked down so people wouldn't have to pay the taxes on them. The community has substantially changed for the worse, but they see the town as surviving.

"I was surprised how positive they are about everything - their mill jobs and the community before, and where they are now," she said.

All the men who volunteered to participate in Simon's project had been retrained at the Katahdin Regional Higher Education Center under a federal program for workers displaced by foreign competition. Most of the men ranged in age from mid-40s to mid-60s and had worked at the mill for 15-20 years; except for one, all were married, and all had families to support. They had received an unemployment package, but losing the high-paid mill jobs meant that many of their wives had to find work for the first time.

Most of the men now hold non-union jobs that are less secure, offer few if any benefits, and pay less than half of what they were making in the mill.

"The men I talked to have these positive conceptualizations," Simon said. "They've been able to change what they value as 'good work.' They still discuss the importance of being able to provide for their families, but they look at the positives of being able to spend more time with their families now that they have no more 12-hour shifts at the mill."

They focus instead on the increased satisfaction they get from their new jobs. Several of the men have found jobs working as teaching aides in local schools, and talked about how they love working with children. Others went into medical fields; one works with mentally and physically handicapped people.

"They discuss the huge economic hits they took - they don't even see retirement in their future now - but they downplay that," Simon said. "They talk about the 'lucky' circumstances they've had: One or two had a lot of savings they could use; others had family members they were able to rely on."

The closing of the mill affected not just the men and their families, but the community as a whole. The mill was, in fact, the town's reason for existing: Millinocket was established in 1901, one year after the mill began operation.

"The mill provided all these things in their lives," Simon said. "It provided interconnectedness in the community. The company supported the town; it funded little league teams and parks; employees could borrow company equipment to lay the foundations for their homes and to build their houses; it provided buses for high school sporting events, and was a source of information for families.

"When it closed, they saw it as a betrayal," she said. "It was a huge blow to their sense of self and identity."

But it did not defeat them, largely because of the opportunity they had to retrain for new careers.

"Most of them did not have anything higher than a high school education, because it wasn't seen as important," she said. "Going back to school was a real struggle for these men. One teared up when he talked about being able to write a paper for a class (at the Katahdin Center). He was in his 60s, and he didn't think he could do it. But there was a sense that they were all in it together.

"The retraining has allowed the community to survive, and allowed the men to regain a sense of self-confidence and self-esteem, and to stay in Millinocket," she said.

Simon said she was impressed by the workers' ability to turn their lives around, and she was grateful for their willingness to share their experiences.

"I was really nervous about interviewing them, being a female college student, an outsider, but they were so nice to me, so receptive to the questions," she said. "With a lot of them, I would ask a very general question, and they would talk and talk. They offered me their e-mail addresses and phone numbers; some brought pictures of the town, maps of the woods they'd worked in, papers they'd written for classes.

"There was a strong sense of having been wronged, and they wanted to make other people hear about what had happened to them," she said. "A lot said that talking about it made them feel better about it."

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