'Going Home': Retraining Keeps Hope Alive in Upstate New York

PHOTO David Muir returns to Syracuse, N.Y. looking for economic solutions
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It was daybreak along Route 20 and the rolling hills that line Onondaga County as I returned to my hometown, Syracuse, N.Y.

It is a proud but tested city. Reminders of hard times are scattered everywhere; shuttered factories, industries that sent their jobs overseas.

We stood last week on the hill that overlooks the skeleton of what once was the Syracuse China factory in the town of Salina. A producer of restaurant china, Syracuse China had operated in this region for nearly 140 years.

At its peak, Syracuse China employed 1,200 people. Tim Loucks spent nearly 20 years at the upstate New York factory. Loucks met his wife there.

Among them, Loucks, his father and his wife logged a total of 86 years of service at Syracuse China.

But Loucks learned last year he was being laid off. The company that owns Syracuse China, Libbey Inc., announced it was moving the jobs out of Syracuse.

"They think they can fool the rest of the world into thinking they're making Syracuse China [in Syracuse], when they're actually making it in China ... China," Loucks told me with a sad laugh.

We found this economic reality everywhere we went in Syracuse.

I returned to the former WTVH-TV studios at 980 James St., where I first wrote to the television station as a 12-year-old. My parents would bring me to the station on summer vacations to intern and I later would land my first job in broadcasting, anchoring the weekend news.

After devastating layoffs in 2009, the building is now for sale. It's a long way from those days when the station's popular jingle, "Stand Up and Tell 'Em You're from Syracuse," played regularly on local television.

And although that spirit is bruised, it has hardly disappeared.

Inside a refurbished factory in the heart of downtown Syracuse sits CNY Works Inc., a nonprofit organization helping the unemployed find a place for the skills they fear are no longer marketable. Rows of computer stations are full on an almost daily basis.

"You absolutely tell them all is not lost; that those jobs skills can be applied elsewhere," said Lenore Sealy, executive director at CNY Works Inc.

Scott Gray was out of work for eight months after his 20-year factory job soldering circuit boards was shipped overseas to China.

His biggest fear? That the skills he had developed in more than two decades would now be useless. "I didn't know where I'd use them. I was scared," Gray told us.

Then came a phone call from CXTec, a Syracuse company that takes old office computer networking equipment and refurbishes it before selling them to businesses that cannot afford to buy new.

Now CXTec is refurbishing laid-off workers, actually paying them to be retrained.

"Syracuse is like so many other cities where they had heavy manufacturing, has left, gone to China, and these folks are left with, 'What am I going to do?'" said Barbara Ashkin, vice president and COO of CXtec.

Workers such as Gray, who had 20 years of loyalty to his prior employer, are extraordinarily valuable, she said.

In Cazenovia, outside Syracuse, Marquardt Switches Inc., a company that makes remote car starters. was forced to make drastic cuts in the recession. Its workforce went from 362 workers to 182, with 60 on the production line.

But rather than abandon its workers, the management at Marquardt Switches tried to help find their workers retraining elsewhere and continued to offer training to the workers who survived the layoffs.

Their hope? If the company ever did recover. it would hire everyone back, with their old skills and their new ones.

It was a hope they were able to fulfill, rehiring many of the former employees. They're now at a force larger than before the recession.

Kirk Wardell, director of operations at Marquardt Switches, said he had never imagined the turnaround. "No. Never," he said. "This is a complete surprise for us."

Even the smallest of businesses are trying to survive; something we found with a simple visit to my sister's farm in Borodino, N.Y.

Rebecca Muir has been growing heirloom vegetables for more than a decade. But in this economy, few people were interested in trekking to the farm to buy shares of her harvest. So she decided to deliver the harvest to them.

"They don't have to come to the farm, that's the one thing we took out for them," she said.

I helped packed the bags for delivery, doing my best to figure out what I was packing. My nieces and nephews who were looking on knew better.

Preparing Onondaga Students

It was a steep learning curve for me, in a town where lessons are being taught everywhere, even at my old high school.

We returned to my old history class at Onondaga Central Junior-Senior High School and discovered the young minds today are learning about the worst recession since the Depression.

The students no longer ask, "What will I be when I grow up?" instead asking, How many things can I be?"

Nearly half the class told me they had a parent who had lost a job or who had fought to keep one.

David Dwyer said his mother lost her job, but had prepared by broadening her skills.

"I learned from her that you have to be diverse in everything you do," Dwyer told me. Success comes "if you have more to bring to the table than just one particular skill."

It was a hard-taught lesson we found playing out even on our way out of town with a visit to Onondaga Community College.

It was there we again met up Tim Loucks. The same proud worker who held onto his Syracuse China three days before, now holding books as he headed to class for medical records technology.

"People in Syracuse are a tough people, " Loucks said. "I salute them, they're good workers."

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