Michael Gerson

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- This town of 15,000 in southwest Virginia is a good candidate for Anywhere, USA. There is bingo at the Elk's Lodge every Monday night. Bowling is a blood sport. But Martinsville also has an unwanted distinction -- a 20 percent unemployment rate, the highest in Virginia.

As the State of the Union approaches, the political class will turn en masse to the issue of unemployment. So I sat down with the objects of this attention -- a group of men studying at a Martinsville vocational training college. From them I learned: It is not easy to make a living while a way of life collapses around you.

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In Martinsville's golden age of textile and furniture manufacturing, recalls Larry Jessee, 48, "If you were fired from one job, you could go to another immediately. Unless you wanted to take time for lunch." Most of those jobs have fled abroad. The work that remains is mainly in retail and fast food -- fields hurt by the current recession -- or in service industries such as health care and call centers.

The call centers -- outsourced customer service for large companies -- demand typing skills, which don't come easily to former factory workers. And a thick, rural Virginia accent isn't usually considered a good phone voice.

So J.D. Privette, 56, and Walter E. Hamell, 59 -- friends and bowling buddies from their days at the table factory -- are training to be office medical assistants. Most medical jobs, however, involve a round-trip commute of 100 miles or more. "You can't afford to move, and no one will buy your house anyway," says Privette.

In this economic transition, men who have worked a lifetime with their hands are back in the classroom, not for personal advancement but for survival. It is "education out of desperation," says Christopher O'Dell, 37. The federal government, through trade adjustment assistance, pays for nine months of job retraining. But employers often demand a two-year associate degree. So the unemployed can incur thousands of dollars in education debt to secure a job making $13 or $14 an hour.

The struggle is more than economic. Tensions come, explains Hamell, "when the breadwinner is not winning the bread anymore." "The strains on your marriage, on your kids, that's a given," says O'Dell. And the dignity of a skilled trade is difficult to surrender. Jessee used to build custom furniture at home to make extra money. "But I was forced to sell my tools to get by."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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