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.”