By Tom Carr
There was good news for change about jobs in the city of Cadillac last month: Four Winns Boats announced plans to expand.
Even though no major company shut its doors in Cadillac last year, the city lost a lot of factory jobs, and some former factory workers doubt manufacturing will make much of a recovery.
Barbara Summey, 63, spends weekdays studying math at the Michigan Works Learning Lab in Cadillac.
"I'm finishing my high school education so I can get back into Four Winns if possible, because I did like my job there," She says. The boat factory laid off Summey a year-and-a-half ago. If she can't get back into Four Winns.
The company might hire hundreds of new workers over the next few years, or even thousands. Four Winns was recently purchased at a bankruptcy auction. Its new parent company not only plans to expand the local brand, but also to move another of its boat brands here from Minnesota.
The Cadillac plant was down to about one-fifth of its size, but has already begun calling back some laid-off employees. The state of Michigan has promised millions in tax credits, the actual size of the break depending on how many jobs it can create.
City Touts Tax Breaks
The Four Winns plant is on the north side of Cadillac. Its neighbors include military contractors and producers of car horns and vacuum cleaners. No major companies in this city shut their doors in 2009, and nearly all the rest have ridden out the entire recession so far. One reason: officials say the city has a long history of giving substantial tax breaks to manufacturers.
"As a council member I can say we do just about everything that we possibly can to lighten up their tax burden and make it more cost-efficient to stay in Cadillac," says Doug Mellema.
But not all of the town's unemployed workers are optimistic that they'll benefit from the tax cuts.
Thomas Mongar has seen call-backs at his old employer, Avon Automotive. But he said those jobs are not what they used to be.
"A lot of the people that were laid off from Avon are now working back at Avon, but they're working through a temp service," he says. "They went from making $15 dollars an hour to making $8.40 an hour."
No Stable Work Without Stable Orders
Avon President Lee Richards said he hopes to hire more permanent workers in the future.
"Our hourly staffing flexes based on what we see in terms of the order book going forward," he says. "So there are times when we use temporary staffing when we've got a temporary spike in orders.
"And when we see a level of orders that seems consistent, we like to staff directly as opposed to through a temp agency. So it just depends on the level of business that's out there."
Since business remains inconsistent, Mongar believes his odds of becoming an auto mechanic in his late 50s is better than returning to a factory. Until then, his family is scraping to get by. They're also scrapping, everything from aluminum cans to an old barn and used appliances for a few extra bucks.
Mongar hopes they can hold on long enough for him to make a successful career change.
"They're telling me right now I can get maybe two years of unemployment to be able to finish my schooling," he says.
Even the hopeful outlook of Four Winns depends on factors beyond the company's control.
"I would love to say there's light on the horizon. We're seeing a general improvement in attitudes and the basic principles of how boats are being sold today in the U.S., but I don't see any real loosening of credit out there today," says company President Jeff Olson.