Lessons from the 21 mile walker

Clearly the plight of James Robertson touched the hearts of Michiganders and the nation. Robertson story of walking 21 miles every day to get to work from Detroit to northern Oakland County was revealed in a wonderful Detroit Free Press article.

As heartbreaking as Robertson’s story is, unfortunately he is not unique. Metro Detroit is filled with lots of folks like Mr. Robertson. Hopefully his story will jump start a larger conversation about what can be done for all those like him who want to work but find it hard to do so and when they get work the pay is too low to be able to cover essential expenses including transportation.

One lesson for metro Detroit––and particularly its suburbs–-to finally learn is that it is unconscionable for the region to have such a horrible public transportation system. Or more accurately non system. It almost certainly the worse of any big metro in the country. We all should be embarrassed and outraged!

Stephen Henderson in a Free Press editorial entitled “Awful transit policy fails everyone in metro Detroit” compellingly makes the case that the region is paying a heavy price for our unwillingness to invest in a quality regional transportation system. He also deals with the underlying racism––”we don’t want them to come here”––that has a lot do with why we don’t have quality regional public transportation. Its a must read editorial. Also worth reading is Transportation Riders United’s take, entitled “Extraordinary Commute Story Highlights Transit Failures”, on the broader lessons we should learn from the Robertson story. As they write: “As much as this is a story of incredible personal drive, it is also a story of the failure of our region to provide essential public services.”

Another lesson we need to learn is the new reality that manufacturing plant floor work is now predominantly low wage work. Mr. Robertson earns $10.55 an hour as an injection molder. Gone are the days of high paid, low education attainment factory jobs that were the backbone of Michigan’s mass 20th Century middle class. If––as our policy makers seems to want––Michigan is going to be a factory-driven economy going forward we better be prepared to deal with lots of James Robertsons. For those wanting to learn more about manufacturing wages check out:

  • A terrific Nathan Bomey article for the Detroit Free Press on Michigan manufacturing wages 
  • the excellent report from the National Employment Law Project entitled “Manufacturing Low Pay: Declining Wages in the Jobs That Built America’s Middle Class”.
  • a 2012 Atlantic article entitled “Making It in America”. Its the best article I have read for understanding the new reality of working a factory.


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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Another issue related to manufacturing is automation. Manufacturing plants can produce the same amount of “stuff” with a lot fewer people than in previous generations. So even if Michigan and the United States return to previous levels of production, we will require far fewer workers. The jobs remaining will probably require higher skills, so workers with low skills will likely be even more out of demand. It seems like the higher skilled jobs should require a higher wage. Right now it seems that even highly skilled workers are seeing declining wages in manufacturing. Perhaps as the industry continues to improve, and realize they need higher skilled workers, supply and demand will set in and wages for the higher skilled will improve. However. I don’t see a lot of hope that supply and demand will improve wages for lower skilled workers.

  2. I believe Michigan should be concentrating on preparing students for the knowledge economy. But based on the Atlantic article, “Making it in America,” it seems like we should also be putting some effort into preparing some students for the highly skilled section of the factory economy in Michigan. There are a lot of students who just do not have the ability to complete a 4 year degree, but who may be very good at technical work and could do the type of skilled manufacturing work described in the Atlantic article. Michigan is still tied to manufacturing. It will take some time to get us into a knowledge economy. In Michigan, many of those knowledge jobs will still be tied to manufacturing companies like automobiles, health care products and furniture. I Manufacturing jobs will continue to decline in the long-term. But a trained manufacturing workforce may keep many of the higher skilled and higher payed factory jobs here in this state, while the lower skilled and lower paid jobs migrate overseas or to lower skilled states.

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