Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Our Jobs - Part 1

A few days ago we received notice of the passing of a good friend from the Capital District of New York. We knew him from the Watervliet Elks Club, where my everlovin' was an active member for many years. Our friend was 93 and had enjoyed a long career with ConRail, a freight railroad. We don't exactly what his job was, but we know that it has not existed for many years.

Our thoughts turned to reminiscing about other friends from that era. One was Manager of Union Relations at Allegheny-Ludlum steel, a company which was bought out by employees and became Al-Tech Specialty Steel. Now there is no more steel mill.

The deceased's wife was a career customer service employee of the phone company. At that time, the phone company was very selective in their hiring. Besides passing the employment tests, they seemed to consider such non-job-related factors as your parents' standing in the community, e.g., if a relative worked for the power company, or was a bank officer, or a parent had some other significant position in the community, your chances of a job offer were much enhanced. If you came from a single-parent family on the fringes of society, not so much. Those who tested well were placed in customer service. Those who didn’t test so well ended up as telephone operators. After hire, if you "played the game," terminations were rare. Break times and days off were carefully monitored. A single day off from work was highly suspect. More than a few days required a doctor's excuse. In return, the pay was adequate, there was no chance of a layoff, and free phone service was provided so long as the employee didn't “abuse” the benefit -- meaning that if there were too many toll calls, you could expect to be summoned to provide an explanation. As those jobs disappeared, self-service became the custom. Now you don't even receive a directory unless you request it.

My everlovin's former wife was Personal Administrator at a local hospital. That hospital has merged with several others in the Capital District of New York, all of which have central administrative functions, so her old job no longer exists.

Other friends worked in a variety of administrative and labor jobs in the garment, textile, and paper industries. My grandmother was a sewing machine operator at Cluett Peabody, manufacturer of Arrow Shirts. Now Arrow Shirts are made in India. Not so many shirts are needed as not so many men wear dress shirts to work every day.

The paper industry was huge in Upstate New York, thanks to the abundant forests of the Adirondacks. There were also other capital goods manufacturers who produced textiles and parts needed by paper manufacturers. Many of the paper companies are now closed or operating at a fraction of their former capacity. We don't need paper for email or .pdf documents, and if less paper is being manufactured, there is reduced demand for papermakers' felts. Bye, bye F. C. Huyck. Hope you’re feeling better, Albany Felt.

We had a baseball factory and a billiard ball factory. Both are now closed. Their products are made abroad.

We used to receive mail delivery twice a day. Remember that? I can't remember that the same person did the route both times, so there must have been twice as many letter carriers.

Sealtest delivered milk, cream, cheeses, and other dairy products alternate days. When it was time to pay, a sales slip was left in your milk box. You put the money in an envelope and the milkman took it. So simple. That job is gone.

Freihofer delivered baked goods (actually by horse-drawn wagons until 1962 in Schenectady). On weekends and school vacations the driver often had a young boy as a helper. At the end of the work day, someone had to feed and groom those horses. The retail driver job, the youthful helper job, and the horse caretaker jobs are all gone.

We knew people who worked in gas stations, pumping gas and cleaning windshields. Do you know anyone who does that anymore? We also knew travel agents. When was the last time you called one?

My first “real” job was in Classified Ads at the Schenectady Gazette. To qualify, you were required to be a reasonably good speller and have a good handwriting so that the compositors could read the ads that you carefully wrote down as they were called in. It was an excellent part-time job except that absolutely NO time off was permitted for any reason. We worked seven days a week, 5-8 PM Monday through Friday, Saturday morning from 8-12, and Sunday evening from 6-8. A sick day, especially around prom time, was suspect. You could count on being summoned to the Classified Ad Manager’s office for discussion. I worked there for nearly six years and learned a lot about real-world work from that job. It’s too bad that it doesn’t exist anymore.

Every college student's nightmare summer job was being a toll collector on the NYS Thruway. While students found it boring, there were many career toll collectors who had passed a civil service test to qualify. Every Thruway toll gate and every bridge gate was staffed. Then they started collecting double tolls for traffic going in only one direction, so they could reduce the staffing by half. Now there are only a few gates staffed at any given exit or entry point, so there are fewer jobs. You take your own ticket and throw your own coins in the bin.

The racing and wagering industry was responsible for a tremendous number of jobs, Before computers, odds were calculated manually at incredible speed by folks with awesome math talents. It was necessary to pass a civil service exam to be hired and it was extremely difficult to find qualified candidates. Not only were superior math skills required, but there was also a background check, and many of those who could pass the exam had convictions for bookmaking. Computers have replaced pari-mutuel examiners. Gambling is done online, so even the bookies' jobs are gone.

Schenectady General Electric always employed at least 20,000 people and at one point reached 26,000. In recent years, plant employment was at 1,500. Latest figures that I could find show current employment to be about 4,000. This was where all non-college bound students aspired to work, and where many college graduates hoped to start their career. I wonder where they go now.

Young, unskilled boys often started their General Electric careers as Mail & Supply Helpers. As they matured and acquired seniority, they bid on promotions. If GE was hiring for plant employment right now, it would not be for mail and supply helpers. There are no more of them. Helpers are not needed to deliver email and .pdf documents.

Nearby Amsterdam, NY was a hub of textiles and smaller manufacturing. Remember the Cabbage Patch dolls...the Adam computer...Easy-Bake Ovens? The toy factory closed in 1998. Now the toys are made in China. Mohawk and other carpet manufacturers that once thrived in Amsterdam moved to Georgia and other southern states. Then they moved to Mexico.

My grandson is studying Mechanical Engineering Technology, which is essentially manufacturing processes. I wonder if he will ever be able to use his degree in United States.

No comments: