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Former Columbus Castings Workers Adapting To Life After the Foundry

Esther Honig
Christopher Lawson worked as a janitor for Columbus Castings. At age 57, he says the hardest thing about looking for work in todays market is learning to use a computer.

It's been about four months since the previous owner of Columbus Castings, the century-old South Side steel foundry, filed for bankruptcy. The new owners plan to keep the plant closed, so about 800 workers needed find work elsewhere. We followed two of the laid-off workers who unexpectedly found themselves in the job market.

In Robert Brown’s living room in northeast Columbus, his welding license hangs in a frame on the wall. On the yellowing paper, blue letters spell out "Buckeye Steel Castings," the original name of the plant before it was sold in 2000.

Robert worked at Columbus Castings for 17 years. The work was hard, often ten hours a day for six days a week. But he loved it and thought he'd retire there.

He never imagined that he’d be looking for work at the age of 59.

"It's hard, but you know what can you do. I'll just keep doing it every day until I get something," says Brown.

Robert and his wife Brenda were watching the news when they found out the plant had closed for good. Brenda remembers it was a painful moment for Robert.

"He was so hurt, and disgusted and angry. He said 'I can't believe they've taken that company away from us.'" says Brenda.

The timing was bad for the Browns. Brenda lost her job earlier this year, and the couple has been getting by on Robert's unemployment checks. They've applied for food stamps and Medicaid, but were denied. They're not sure why.

Since Columbus Castings closed four months ago, they've been looking for work together. Several times a week, they'll drive to job fairs and interviews.

Brenda says they have to budget every last gallon of gas.

"[Robert] thinks he has to go twice a day, and sometimes I'm like,'OK, but that's going to cut us back with our gas and so were not going to be able to do this on this day.'"

Robert is determined to find work again as a welder. He shows off a thick leather folder filled with business cards and copies of his resume. There's a list of local companies where he's applied for work. If he doesn't get a callback, he writes 'nothing' next to the name.

Robert says he's applied to dozens of companies, but has only had one or two interviews.

For skilled manufacture workers like Robert, the job market is precarious. In Central Ohio, the number of manufacturing jobs is on the rise, though it remains below pre-recession levels. Today, there are about 70,000 manufacturing jobs. That's 10,000 fewer than in 2006. 

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Jo Youngs at the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corporation, a public/private agency that links workers with companies, says they've helped about 300 former Columbus Castings employees look for new jobs. Like Robert Brown, a lot of them are older, but Young says unlike other sectors of the job market, manufacturers aren't just looking to hire millennials.

"In this case, in manufacturing, it's a little bit different," says Young. "Employers are looking for those folks with experience who can really hit the ground running."

Christopher Lawson is also a former Columbus Castings employee. He worked as a janitor, but says in his case, being older is a disadvantage. Lawson has a bad ankle and walks with a slight limp. He says he's had job offers, but they wanted him to work 12 hour-days.

"I'm 57 years old," says Lawson. "You know I really can't. I'm not saying I can't do it, but it would be a real strain on my health."

Like a lot of the Columbus Castings workers, Lawson hasn't had to look for work in a long time, and the job market has changed. Lawson says he's never needed a computer to find a job.

"Everything now is online, you got to know how to work a computer. Everybody wants you to learn to work the computer. I'm still having a hard time with that," says Lawson.

Lawson hopes he can find another job before his unemployment benefits run out in two months. Every week he goes to job fairs, some hosted by  the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corporation and aimed at seniors like him.

"She said she's got another job fair coming up this Tuesday. I'll be there. You know somebody will call me with the right position, and if I can handle it, I'll go for it," says Lawson.

Lawson knows he won't make $14.75 an hour like he did at the steel plant. Most jobs he sees pay about $11 an hour. But he just needs something to help him get by.