This is the latest installment of our series on the new American economy, “How the Deck Is Stacked,” reported in conjunction with Frontline and PBS NewsHour.
American manufacturing, like a great softball game, is being illustrated as a comeback story waiting to happen during the 2016 presidential election. There’s been a vow to uproot overseas factories and bring them home from one side, a plan to spark a new manufacturing renaissance on the other and threats to punish those who choose to take production elsewhere from both.
But can that actually happen?
To find out, we went to Rochester, New York, once a manufacturing company town trying to rebrand itself as a town of companies, and a microcosm, perhaps, of America’s ongoing battle with a shifting industrial landscape.
Joe Gogolsky and Chuck Steffen sit at a kitchen table, looking through old photos, reminiscing about their time working — and playing — for Kodak.
Kodak wasn’t just a paycheck for its employees, who topped 60,000 at the company’s peak. It was a way of life. Many participated in myriad sports leagues the company ran, including softball.
“When we played softball, it was just unbelievable. They flew us all over the country to play ball, and they paid for everything. I mean cars, food, entry fees, every year we got brand-new uniforms. Brand-new jackets. It was just unbelievable. They even took the wives along on our trips, and they paid for all that,” Gogolski said.
Gogolski and Steffen were on the roster for Kodak’s national-title-winning softball team in 1982. But ‘82 wasn’t just a big year on the field for Kodak, it was a big year in the factory, too. Kodak had a virtual monopoly on the film business, and was posting record profits. The company employed a quarter of the Rochester metro area and accounted for half of the area’s economic activity.
Kai Ryssdal: Was there a moment, time, instant where you knew that Kodak, the company you joined, was not going to be around?
Gogolski: In the mid-80s, things started going south. We seen the handwriting on the wall. It got so bad though that when you were writing with a pen and you run out of ink, you had to take the empty pen back to the stockpile. Paper, tape. Take the empty tape roll dispenser back to get a new roll of tape, that’s how bad things were, cutting left and right. Probably around 1990, ‘91, everything came to a halt. No more.
Ryssdal: They just said, “that’s it, we’re done?”
Gogolski: Yeah. “We don’t have the money in our budget like we used to, we’re not gonna sponsor any teams.” Everything just went to pot in the ‘90s, just went right down the tube.
Most people know what happened to Kodak. The first blow was Fujifilm, a Japanese film company that undercut Kodak’s prices. Then in the early 2000s, the company that invented the digital camera couldn’t pivot fast enough to digital.
The company declared bankruptcy in 2012 and started tearing buildings down in Rochester.
“My boss says to me, we need a safety engineer for the demo. So I drove all around the demo sites, and I was right there when they started demolishing all of the buildings,” Gogolski said. “It was just sad, all the memories. You see a building you say, ‘Gee, I remember that building, we were slicing film in there.’ I mean, it was just sad. It was actually sad.”
In 2014, two years after Kodak declared bankruptcy, Lovely Warren became the first female, second black and youngest mayor in Rochester’s history.
Since the time Warren grew up in Rochester in the 1980s, the city has been struggling with the slow bleed of manufacturing.
“My mom’s family moved here in the late 1960s. They saw Rochester as a place where they could raise their family, where they could have generations that could have success,” Warren said. “My mom received a GED. Her brothers and sisters, many of them received GEDs. They went to work in manufacturing.”
Warren said manufacturing was her own family’s path to the middle class, and it changed the face of Rochester. Good paying, low-skilled jobs drew in people from everywhere. In the 1950s, Rochester was 98 percent white and 2 percent black. By 2010, the city was 44 percent white and 42 percent black. But when those manufacturing jobs started to dry up, a rift started to form in Rochester.
“Rochester is the epitome of the ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ You could live in Rochester all your life and never see poverty. You can live in poverty all your life and never see wealth,” Warren said. “That is because, in our community, poverty is concentrated. Many of the executives and the upper management that worked in Kodak and in these larger companies, they lived in the suburbs. The people that lived in the city were those individuals that worked on the line, that worked on the manufacturing floor. When manufacturing left and started to move overseas and in other places, the decline in the inner-city, in those families losing their income and having the struggle, and then the next generation under them not having anywhere, or a manufacturing floor to go into, became greater.”
Warren said what complicates the issue even more is that the inner-city schools have suffered from the economic downturn the most, which has lead to the lowest high school graduation rate in the state at around 50 percent.
Once home to 30,000 Kodak employees, Eastman Business Park — formerly known as Kodak Park — was the heart of American manufacturing.
The park is nearly 4 miles long and used to have over 100 buildings. Forty-five have now been demolished, and are marked by empty shadows of gravel. The remaining 63 are each a different shape and size from all different bygone eras. There are smokestacks, a dedicated rail system, stacks of coal that still power the place and miles and miles of metal tubes snaking above ground, connecting each facility like a circulatory system.
In many ways, Kodak Park is a monument to American manufacturing at its zenith. Kodak was vertically integrated, which means everything was made here, from the gelatin in the film to the tiny screws in each camera.
When the company scaled back after declaring bankruptcy, it began leasing out empty space in the park to outside companies and renamed its factory turned tech hub Eastman Business Park.
Former Kodak chemical engineer Mike Alt was the first guy tasked with selling the new idea as the vice president of Eastman Business Park.
One of the companies Alt helped broker a deal with was chemical manufacturer SiGNa Chemistry, headquartered in New York City. After moving in, the company asked him to run its operation here. He’s now SiGNa’s vice president of technology and manufacturing.
Kai Ryssdal: Talk to me about the change in manufacturing and the size of SiGNa. And what you’re doing now versus equivalent stuff 30 years ago, because manufacturing in this country is completely different.
Mike Alt: It is. Manufacturing in the U.S. is completely different. It went from labor intensive to labor efficient.
Ryssdal: You’ve got one guy running this thing.
Alt: We have a crew of three people that run this facility, where years ago it would have been much more. And that’s a big change. A lot of the lower technology manufacturing operations have gone offshore. What we want is to keep and grow the high technology ones, but there won’t be the same amount of employees that used to run those. Those will be down. And I don’t know if the factor will be 2 times smaller or 4 times, it depends. But clearly this facility, we’ve automated a lot of the operations, and we’ll continue to automate those so that our operators now have to be very smart. They have to have basic chemistry skills, they have to have good math skills, they have to have very good trouble-shooting skills.
Ryssdal: Can I get a job in SiGNa at this park straight out of high school?
Alt: Um. Maybe with two or three years of industrial experience, but probably not right out of high school.
Ryssdal: So these are jobs that are approaching the need for technical skills, you gotta have it.
Alt: Well, I think, you know, when you talk about jobs, the manufacturing jobs still pay a very good middle-wage position, and so people can come work for a manufacturer, and because we’re selling products throughout the world, they can make a good living versus the service sector. You know, we’re paying a multiple of service-sector pay. So that’s important. We still need these middle-wage jobs, and I don’t know where they’re going to come from if they don’t come from manufacturing for people who choose not to pursue college or some other trade.
28-year-old Chad Kenyon is one such employee, he’s one of the three people working on the floor.
Kai Ryssdal: Is this a good job?
Chad Kenyon: It’s a great job. It’s probably the best job I’ve ever had in my life.
Ryssdal: How much you making?
Kenyon: Good money [laughs].
Ryssdal: Good money like $50,000 a year, or good money like $80,000 a year?
Kenyon: Good money, like $50,000 a year.
Ryssdal: So, in a way it’s funny, right, because your dad’s generation is the one that got out of high school, came to Kodak and was here for 35 years doing manufacturing or whatever it was they were doing. You’re sort of in that step now.
Kenyon: Yeah. This is it for me. I’ll be here for life. As long as they are willing to keep me employed and stay in business, which I’m sure they won’t have a problem doing, I’m here.
The decline of Kodak and manufacturing in town may have slowly pulled the rug out from under the economy in Rochester, but it’s also created the threads to reweave it.
The Kodak diaspora, former talent from the company, has taken root in new forms. Former Kodak employee Michael Molaire, now CEO and founder of Molecular Glasses, launched his startup in a building in Eastman Business Park in November 2015.
Michael Molaire: This is what we’re making. This is an organic material, but because of the way we make it, it behaves like a glass. It stays in the liquid form even when it’s solid. It’s like honey.
Kai Ryssdal: Can I touch it? Can I poke it around?
Molaire: Umm … no. This material has to be 100 percent pure. I’ll tell you, a kilogram of that material will be $25,000.
Molaire: That’s very expensive material.
Molaire rents his modest four-room lab from Eastman Business Park, just down the hall from his former office at Kodak. He said the material his company makes was actually invented at Kodak, but the company didn’t see the value in putting it to market.
Kai Ryssdal: You’ve got a long history at Kodak, 36 years at that company?
Mike Molaire: Yes.
Ryssdal: And you left because?
Molaire: Actually Kodak left me [laughs].
Ryssdal: And you decided to manufacture this stuff.
Molaire: Yeah, that’s how we started.
Ryssdal: And we are actually, I mean, as we were walking in, your office for 10 or 12 years at Kodak was right down the hall.
Molaire: Right down the hall. Yeah.
Ryssdal: It’s like you’re coming to work all over again.
Molaire: When we need some help, we hire some temps. We are very lean and trying to conserve cash.
Ryssdal: Right, because you’re a startup.
Ryssdal: How old are you?
Ryssdal: 65 and running a startup.
Molaire: Yeah, I know. That’s the scary part [laughs]. And I don't have a lot of time, so I need to get that thing going.
I caught up with former-softball champion Chuck Steffen later on our trip, at Ridgewood Park outside of Rochester. There, he still takes the field for a 50-and-over slow-pitch softball league. Some of the guys on the team worked at Kodak — well, used to.
I talked to a whole bunch of players during the game, the people you would picture if you thought of the glory days of manufacturing, but perhaps the most insightful thought came from a spectator in the bleachers, Michelle Steffen, Chuck’s wife. She worked for Kodak for 20 years.
“You didn’t even have to go to college. You got out of high school and went to Kodak, Delco, Rochester Products, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb and you made $20 an hour. Back in the day, you got out of school, and you could be 18 and move off on your own into an apartment.
Today? These kids today? If you don’t have college, those top companies are just not here anymore. My youngest daughter did it the hard way. She found out without college here, there’s only $13-an-hour jobs. If that. She’s still at home, 31, but back to school now to get that degree to get out on her own. There was an article in the paper this past weekend, ‘Oh, middle class America, so many jobs are coming back,’ $12 to $15 an hour. Like, what are you gonna do with $12 to $15 an hour? You cannot live on your own.”
This piece was produced by Marketplace’s Elections Desk: Tommy Andres, Caitlin Esch and Raghu Manavalan, with field engineer Brad Fisher and mix engineer Ben Tolliday. Demolition video credit: WXXI. All other photos and video by Tommy Andres.