Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

The Role of Social Capital in Reclaiming Human Capital: A Longitudinal Study of Occupational Mobility among Displaced Steelworkers

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

The Role of Social Capital in Reclaiming Human Capital: A Longitudinal Study of Occupational Mobility among Displaced Steelworkers

Article excerpt

This paper examines the employment and income effects of job training, education, and social network contacts over a 10-year period among a random sample of steelworkers who lost jobs to plant closings in the early 1980s in a manufacturing community in Western Pennsylvania. First interviewed in 1987, a majority of the 102 respondents were unemployed or underemployed. A second round of interviews was conducted in 1997 with 87 of the original respondents to examine changes in income and employment status, the types of training and education that had been pursued over the course of 10 years, and their use of social network contacts in the job search process. The study found that short-term training was not effective in providing training-related employment or in advancing hourly wages above the sample mean. Social network contacts were the primary means by which the respondents secured manufacturing work and other skilled positions.

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Following the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s, research and media accounts carried stark reports from the Rust Belt and other industrial communities of abandoned mills, economic recessions, and manufacturing workers resigned to working at low-wage service sector jobs (Buss & Redburn, 1983; Dudley, 1994; Illes, 1995; Pappas, 1989). Research indicates that in the past most displaced industrial workers experienced substantial earnings decreases in the years following their job losses, with few blue collar workers having the education or professional experience to enter higher paying jobs in the growth sector of the service economy (Hammermesh, 1989; Jacobson, LaLonde, & Sullivan, 1993; Moore, 1996). In addition to economic development, policy analysts have debated the effectiveness of employment assistance including human capital investments in job training and education, and the utilization of social network contacts and social capital to connect job seekers to employment (Council of Economic Advisors, 1996; Indegaard, 1999; U.S. Department of Labor, 1995). While much policy research has focused on the effects of training and education, some analysts contend that social capital is equally if not more important than human capital for socioeconomic advancements (Lin, 1999; Lin et al, 1981; Marsden & Hurlbert, 1988).

This article examines the roles of both social and human capital in the occupational mobility of a group of former industrial workers. The results were drawn from a 10-year longitudinal study of a random sample of steelworkers who lost jobs due to plant closings in 1983 and 1984 in a community in Western Pennsylvania. When first interviewed in 1987, four years after their job losses, a majority of the 102 respondents had experienced extensive downward mobility: most were working at low-wage service-sector jobs such as janitor and almost one-third reported incomes below the federal poverty line. A second wave of interviews was conducted in 1997 with a panel of 87 respondents to track changes in their income and employment status over the previous decade. Using in-depth interviews, the study solicited both quantitative and qualitative information to gain insight into the processes by which these displaced workers attempted to regain middle-income status including job training, education, and the utilization of job contacts and social networks, and examined the types of personal and employment strategies that yielded long-term economic gains.

As work provisions have become a more common feature of many social programs, attention within the field of social welfare has increasingly focused on understanding the methods that poor and low-income individuals use to obtain employment and higher wages. However, most of the extant studies on the applications and interactions of social and human capital have focused on middle-class and professional employees, and relatively little empirical information is available on poor and low-income groups (Schneider, 2000; Reingold, 1999; Zippay, 1990). …

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