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Hard Times: A Journey Across America
For Mill Town's Youth, 'It Can't Get Any Worse'
Originally published on Tue December 6, 2011 9:25 am
Part of a monthlong series
Coming after Gen X and Gen Y, the next generation of young people have been called "Gen Wrong Place, Wrong Time." With unemployment and college costs both sky-high and the housing market in collapse, young people today are facing extraordinary economic uncertainty.
Perhaps nowhere is that more clear than in a small town like East Millinocket, Maine.
Try to ask young folks here how they feel about their economic future, and you pretty much have your answer before you even start.
"There are not a lot of 22-year-olds in the area," says school superintendent Quenten Clark. "They're gone."
Clark has seen it, both personally and professionally. The once-booming mill town used to offer residents what was basically a guaranteed ticket into the middle class. Young families flocked here, and the high school was bursting with 100 to 200 students per grade.
But today, as the paper industry has declined and young people have left town for college and jobs, classes have shrunk to 20 or 30 students. Clark's own kids left town to start their careers in Beijing and Africa, a completely foreign idea when Clark was a kid.
"It used to be that opportunity was a quarter-mile away — at the bottom of the hill," he says, pointing toward the mill from his office at the high school.
Indeed, high school kids used to literally run the day they graduated to the paper mill, where they were guaranteed a good job — at a good wage for life. The mill once employed about 4,000; today, just 200 or so work there.
"It's a little scary, because it's going to be tough," says Jared Lyons, a senior at Schenck High School. As an honor roll student and captain of the soccer team, Lyons is the kind of kid who should be feeling downright cocky about his future. But having watched his father — and so many others — lose their mill jobs and seeing the economy crumble, he worries about how he'll afford college and achieve his dream to become a doctor.
"It really can't get worse than it is now," he says.
Looking For Work
Matt Morris, a junior who also wants to make a career in the medical field, agrees.
"The whole economy sucks, for lack of a better term," he says. "We're going to have to work very hard — and a lot of it isn't in our hands, either."
That can be the hardest part for kids who've always been told that if they just study hard and get good grades, they could do whatever they want.
Instead, students like these — who've done everything they're supposed to — have a hard time finding even an after-school job for minimum wage. There are very few options in East Millinocket, where there is little more left than the pharmacy, two bars and a gas station.
Crystal Rodrigues, 17, has been looking for a job, to no avail, while she studies for the GED. She didn't want to talk about it herself, but her dad, Duane, says Crystal's job search has been almost unbearable.
"She seems really depressed about it," he says. "She's really down. She feels like there's no hope, and she just stays in her room all day. And then sometimes she'll have more hope again, and she'll go, 'I'm going to go out today, and I'm going to go look again.' "
But with unemployment around 17 percent around here, the competition for jobs is fierce. Even if you are lucky enough to have a car so you can make the trek to one of the larger surrounding towns, it's not much easier.
"I tried at McDonald's and at the grocery store and stuff," says Tayla Federico, 17. But she has yet to hear back. "They already have people working there — like old people."
"A lot of these kids are competing now in the workplace with people who have 25 years' experience who are not too good to be working for $7.50 an hour behind the fryolator," says Nancy McKechnie, youth manager for the Eastern Maine Development Corp. "And so that adds a whole other layer to kids' challenges."
The EMDC is a nonprofit that offers job training, career counseling, and classes to both young and older folks here. It's not unusual to find parents and their children enrolled in the same courses or both working in the computer room looking for jobs.
Elizabeth Haven, 18, is enrolled in medical classes through Eastern Maine Community College and is hoping to become a nurse.
"The odds are stacked against us younger kids," Haven says. "But they'll always need nurses and doctors, and you'll be set for life if you go in the medical field. So, I should be fine."
Administrators describe Haven as one of the most driven kids they've met. She undoubtedly will be fine, they say. It's the less motivated kids they worry about.
Gone are the good old days, when everyone — valedictorian or not — could count on a mill job. But Schenck High School Principal John Farrington says that idea has been deeply ingrained in the culture here, and some have yet to adapt.
"The window of opportunity is a lot smaller now than it was for my generation," Farrington says. "I wonder all the time what is going to become of young men and women if they don't get their act together in a hurry. And how do we light the fire under them? It's a tough job."
Motivating and navigating the college application and career planning process can be especially challenging for kids whose parents never went through it themselves.
Toni Federico signed up her daughter, Tayla, for help studying for her GED and preparing for a job in the medical field. "You need someone to guide you," Federico says.
Jared Lyons has that part figured out — he has known he wants to be a doctor since he was a little kid. He also knows his path will be much longer than his father's short walk down to the mill. But it's worth it, Jared says, if that's what it takes to make sure that he doesn't find himself 20 years from now out of work, like his father and so many others.
"I wouldn't trade [places]," he says. "I'd rather be in this situation and be more prepared. You're tougher if you get through it."
"That's your dream," says his mom, Kim. "You want him to go farther than we did. Shoot for the moon, but hope you land among the stars. Even if you don't get to exactly where you wanted to go, at least you've gone somewhere."
The sad part, she says, is that "somewhere" will most likely not be East Millinocket.
For Jared, achieving that American dream of prosperity will almost surely mean leaving the place where his entire family has lived — and prospered — for generations.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Call them Gen Wrong Place Wrong Time. This generation of young people faces extraordinary economic challenges, with unemployment and college costs both sky high. Here's an example: the small town of East Millinocket, Maine. For more than a century, the paper mill there provided good-paying, middle-class jobs. Now, as the paper industry has declined, young people are scrambling to find a new path.
As part of our series "Hard Times: A Journey Across America," NPR's Tovia Smith has this report.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Try to ask young folks in East Millinocket how they feel about their economic future here, and you pretty much have your answer before you even start.
QUENTEN CLARK: There aren't a lot of 22-year-olds in the area. They're gone, OK?
SMITH: School superintendent Quenten Clark has seen it both personally and professionally. As young adults left town for college and jobs, classes that used to be 100 or 200 kids have shrunk down to 20 or 30. Clark's own kids left to start their careers in Beijing and Africa - a completely foreign idea when Clark was a kid.
CLARK: It used to be that opportunity was quarter of a mile away, at the bottom of the hill.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
SMITH: The paper mill in East Millinocket used to be where kids would, literally, run the day they graduated high school. Generations grew up guaranteed a good job at a good wage, for life. Four thousand once worked here. None could have imagined the reality today - just 200 or so workers, and four times as many applicants turned away.
JARED LYONS: It's a little scary, 'cause it's going to be tough.
SMITH: As an honor student and captain of the soccer team, Jared Lyons is the kind of high school senior who should be feeling downright cocky about his future. But having watched his father lose his mill job and the economy crumble, he worries now about how he'll afford college, and achieve his dream to become a doctor.
JARED LYONS: I mean, it really can't get worse than it is now in this recession we're in, so...
MATT MORRIS: The whole economy - in whole, is just - it sucks, for lack of a better term.
SMITH: That's Matt Morris, a junior who's also looking to make a career in the medical field.
MORRIS: We're going to have to work very hard, but a lot of it's not even in our hands, either.
SMITH: That can be the hardest part for kids who've always been told if they just study hard and get good grades, they can do whatever they want. Instead, students like these, who've done everything right, have a hard time finding even an after-school job for minimum wage.
In the heart of East Millinocket, the pharmacy is empty at noontime, and there's little else around besides two bars and a gas station. Not much opportunity for a kid looking for work, like 17-year-old Crystal Rodrigues. She didn't want to talk about it herself but her dad, Duane Rodrigues, says Crystal's job search has been almost unbearable.
DUANE RODRIGUES: Seems really depressed by it, you know; she's really down. I think she feels like no hope, and she just stays in her room all day. And then sometimes, she'll - and then she'll have more hope again and she'll go, I'm going to go out today, and I'm going to go look again.
SMITH: But with unemployment around 17 percent around here, competition is fierce even in surrounding towns, as 17-year-old Tayla Federico found out.
TAYLA FEDERICO: I tried McDonald's and grocery stores and stuff.
SMITH: Did you get a call back?
TAYLA FEDERICO: No, not yet. But they already have people working there - like, old people.
NANCY MCKEKNIE: You know, a lot of these kids are competing now in the workplace, you know, with people who have 25 years' experience, who are not too good to be working for 7.50 an hour behind the fryolator. And so that adds a whole other layer to their challenges.
SMITH: That's Nancy McKeknie, youth manager for the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, a nonprofit that offers job training, career counseling, and classes in everything from computers to anatomy.
LARRY LANKHURST: Look at me. What's my belly button compared to my chin?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Inferior.
LANKHURST: Inferior. It's on the trunk.
SMITH: Instructor Larry Lankhurst goes through a drill on medical terminology to a class filled with as many 40- and 50-year-olds as 20-somethings.
LANKHURST: What is my elbow compared to my wrist? Do you use superior and inferior?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.
LANKHURST: No, because on the appendages, you're going to use proximal, distal.
SMITH: Medical classes draw some of the most ambitious, like 18-year-old Elizabeth Haven, who's hoping to become a nurse.
ELIZABETH HAVEN: Odds are stacked against us younger kids. But they'll always need nurses and doctors, and you'll be set for life if you go in the medical field. I should be fine.
SMITH: Administrators describe Haven as one of the most driven kids they've ever met. She undoubtedly will be fine, they say. It's the less motivated kids they worry about. Gone are the good old days when everyone could count on a mill job - valedictorian or not. But high school principal John Farrington says some in town have yet to adapt.
JOHN FARRINGTON: I wonder all the time what is going to become of these young men and young women if they don't get their act together in a hurry. And how do we light a fire under these kids? It's a tough thing to do.
JOYCE SANTERRE: All right. So part of the assessment that we did, you did very well with the reading, and the math was a little bit on the low side. So we need to get you focused on that.
TAYLA FEDERICO: I told you I was bad at math.
SMITH: Tayla Federico huddles with career adviser Joyce Santerre, who's helping her get her GED and then, she hopes, some kind of job in health care.
SANTERRE: The career exploration software, and that's going to help to establish what you would like to do in the medical field. I did...
SMITH: That help is especially important to children of mill workers who never experienced the whole what-do-I-want-to-do-when-I-grow-up thing, like Tayla's mother, Toni Federico.
TONI FEDERICO: Yeah, you need somebody to guide you, you know? I mean, I wasn't the only parent looking for, you know, where to start, and it was like, oh, thank God I found somebody that can send me in the right direction, you know, and get my child on the right path, so...
KIM LYONS: Jared, are you ready to go to form(ph) now?
JARED LYONS: Yeah.
KIM LYONS: OK. You want to stop and get gas so that you...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JARED LYONS: I'll get it on the way back.
KIM LYONS: OK.
SMITH: At home after school, Kim Lyons' son Jared has got that part figured out. He knows his path to become a doctor will be much longer than his father's short walk down to the mill. But it's worth it, Jared says, if that's what it takes to make sure he doesn't find himself, 20 years from now, out of work - like his father, and so many others.
JARED LYONS: I wouldn't trade it. I'd rather be in this situation and be more prepared. You'll be tougher if you get through it.
KIM LYONS: Yeah, I mean, that's your dream. You want him to go farther than we did.
BOB LYONS: Yeah. You want him to do better.
KIM LYONS: Like, you know, shoot for the moon, but hope you land among the stars. At least you've gone somewhere.
SMITH: The sad part is that somewhere will most likely not be East Millinocket, Maine. For Jared, achieving that American dream of prosperity, and doing better than his parents, will almost surely mean leaving the place where his entire family has lived and prospered for generations.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
WERTHEIMER: You can follow our month-long series on Twitter @NPRHardTimes, and at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.