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The American middle class is in distress. Here's what that means to the world's largest economy, and the rest of planet earth.

Bridge oakland
Large sections of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge were built by Chinese ironworkers who live and work on an island off the coast of Shanghai. (Justin Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images)
United States

America the Gutted: Outsourcing America's infrastructure

Once the bridge-building capital of the West Coast, the Portland area has suffered as major projects go overseas.

VANCOUVER, Washington — When ironworker Larry Brown turned 18, he bet his future on what seemed like the safest part of a safe profession.

“A lot of people were graduating from college and they weren’t making the kind of money you could make in the trades,” said Brown, now 50.

The ironworking trade once reserved perhaps its most secure jobs for the men who build infrastructure the government can’t help but buy. Steel bridges aren’t something you can skip or skimp on.

Brown grew up in the bridge-making capital of the West Coast. Barges carrying massive girders routinely plied the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. Straight out of high school, Brown took a job sweeping a manufacturer’s floors. Two decades later, he was a well-paid equipment manager – able to afford cars, motorcycles and a middle-class suburban home.

And then, it all began to unravel.

“You thought you had a good thing going and well, you didn’t,” Brown said. “The problem with the bridges is they can have them done overseas for so much cheaper.”

The corporate undertow that draws more American manufacturing jobs overseas each year has taken hold of mega-projects like bridge-building, too. In the last ten years, significant pieces of America’s biggest infrastructure projects have been built abroad.

The deck for the largest US suspension bridge built in half a century, Seattle’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge – made in South Korea. The span slated to be Alaska’s longest bridge – the steel was made in China. Chinese workers also built the 500-foot tower and steel road decks for the east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, billed as the most complex engineering feat in California history.

Cash-strapped states say they’re acting in the interests of taxpayers, choosing a superior, often cheaper, product by looking offshore. Critics say states are prioritizing the immediate bottom line without taking into account the trickle-down benefits of employing US workers. Meanwhile, the once-proud bridge builders whose labor assured them a place in America’s middle class are watching the ground disappear beneath them.

“It used to be a guy could get a job and he could stay with that company and he could be with that company for 20 or 30 years,” said Portland union leader Aden J. Blair. “That’s dried up.” 

Membership in Blair’s union, Ironworkers Shopmen’s Local 516, has fallen by 46 percent in the last decade, as members who spent careers in the same industry suddenly couldn’t find work. Blair said he spends much of his time talking to men with years of experience who now find themselves scrambling to make ends meet.

“I’ve had guys crying on the phone,” Blair said. “They see that there’s no work, there’s no place to turn to.”

Blair scrolled down a list of those who’ve dropped out of the union. He said hopelessness has “caused a lot of these guys to stop even looking for work and literally go flip burgers at McDonalds, go work at 7-Eleven, go pump gas at the gas station to try to feed their family any way that they can.”

After one of America’s biggest bridge-builders, Universal Structural Inc., closed down in 2006, things became particularly bleak for former ironworker Rico Fernandez, 55.

There just weren’t any other jobs, Fernandez said, adding, “I lost my mobile home and I had to go live with family.”

Another former USI ironworker, Dean Stoddard, 50, managed to get a job with another company, but work ran out there as well.

He took advantage of a government worker-retraining program after getting laid off a second time. But even after earning an associates degree in computer network administration, full-time work still proved elusive.

He has started painting homes and doing handyman work for neighbors and friends. Meanwhile, he’s continuing on for a bachelor’s degree, and continuing to fight the long employment odds that face the jobless and middle-aged.

“I’m still hireable in the sense that I’m a smart guy, I think. I’m a hard worker, but I’m 50,” Stoddard said, taking a break from painting trim on his neighbor’s garage. As for potential employers? “They look at you and think, well you’re going to drop dead in ten years or something,” Stoddard says.

Even for those who’ve