The latest installment in the Wall Street Journal's series on challenges to the "American dream" (subscription required) focuses on workers in Milwaukee, including the tribulations of computer support technician Ron Larson.
According to the story published today, Larson, 58, has a contract job that runs six weeks but doesn't know if he'll still be working afterwards. Earlier in the year, an eight-year-old misdemeanor conviction cost him another temporary tech support job.
On the face of it, Larson followed the script of what working class Joes were supposed to do about the global economy: upgrade your skills to snag high-paying service work, such as a tech job. A welder in a factory during the 1970s, Larson was laid off in 1981 and in the 1990s taught himself to use computers.
But things haven't gone according to plan. Despite landing some tech support work, he and his wife have nearly depleted his 401(k) retirement plan, which once totaled $240,000, according to the story. Last year, he filed for bankruptcy. And earlier this year he admitted to feeling some economic insecurity, according to the story:
"I always believed if you worked hard, your rewards would come," Larson said when he was between jobs, the Journal reported. "I said there's no way I'm going to be like that guy sleeping under the bridge, or homeless. Right now I don't think that."
Larson's tale raises questions about the safety net--or lack thereof--for U.S. workers. And, in an era when much tech support work can be done from lower-wage nations, his struggle suggests some reflection on U.S. trade policies.
In the short run, at least, U.S. techies may be more the losers than gainers in today's global trade arrangements. A report last year sponsored by an industry group on offshore outsourcing of software and IT services indicated that sacrifices by American IT workers would result in an improved U.S. economy overall.