person wearing brown and black hiking shoe

Nancy and I are doing some spruc­ing up of our new house. About a year ago, we were liv­ing in our church gym­na­si­um after our house on the Kentucky River flood­ed into the sec­ond floor. We decid­ed to move into town and found a nice abode near College Park, which had for­mer­ly been a rental property. 

Our next-door neigh­bors anx­ious­ly await­ed our home­own­er­ship as they were ready to install a new fence between our prop­er­ties. It appar­ent­ly had been a while since some­one had giv­en them per­mis­sion to “intrude” on this prop­er­ty. Needless to say, we were all thrilled this could pro­ceed. Our neigh­bors, who do all kinds of build­ing and repair work, also agreed to build us hog-wire fenc­ing and gates, a back deck, and a tool shed. Our next projects were a met­al roof, insu­la­tion, new elec­tri­cal and plumb­ing work, a half-bath in the attic, and a pri­va­cy wall upstairs to cre­ate anoth­er bed­room for my son when he’s home on break. 

Whew! A lot of work. Work that’s very appreciated.

Today, I had a vis­it from a sub­con­trac­tor from a local big-box home improve­ment store to do mea­sur­ing for a new kitchen cab­i­net and coun­ter­tops. Matthew is a great guy – he lives in Lexington and owns his own cab­i­net busi­ness in Frankfort. In our con­ver­sa­tions, he shared that it’s hard for him to find sol­id work­ers like so many oth­er busi­ness­es and indus­tries late­ly. He said that even hard­er is to find young folks will­ing to learn trades, whether it be crafts­men, elec­tri­cians, plumbers, etc. Between a few months to a few years of trade school edu­ca­tion and years of appren­tice­ship and jour­ney­man work, many peo­ple find this too daunt­ing with not enough reward. Matthew said that so many young work­ers find it hard to com­mit when a new thing involv­ing less work — and maybe more mon­ey — shows up every few months.

As I’ve shared in this space before, after serv­ing eight years in the Air Force, my dad start­ed employ­ment with General Electric as a home repair­man. He was prop­er­ly trained and com­pen­sat­ed and moved up the lad­der over a peri­od of ten years before he was trans­ferred to Kentucky in an appli­ance man­age­ment posi­tion. He didn’t attend col­lege and had no for­mal degree, but he knew the work involved on both sides of GE’s busi­ness – in the fac­to­ry and at the desk. In the end, my dad accept­ed ear­ly retire­ment at age 60. His posi­tion was elim­i­nat­ed. The com­pa­ny cre­at­ed three new posi­tions pay­ing less mon­ey to fill that gap – posi­tions that went to recent col­lege grad­u­ates who had nev­er sold an oven or fixed a wash­ing machine. This might be a sim­i­lar sto­ry of bygone days for many folks.

In the past few years, espe­cial­ly unveiled by the glob­al pan­dem­ic (which forced busi­ness­es and com­pa­nies to change oper­at­ing strate­gies), lay off work­ers, send peo­ple home, and even close up shop for good, we’ve seen employ­ment in all sorts of indus­tries tru­ly face the music. The real­i­ty of actu­al­ly pay­ing a liv­ing wage in this coun­try is an actu­al top­ic of argu­ments, not a finan­cial and social giv­en, as it should be. Global sup­ply chain issues, com­pa­nies with only the bot­tom line as their con­cern, con­tin­u­ous gen­der, eco­nom­ic, geo­graph­ic, and racial inequity in hir­ing and mon­ey-lend­ing prac­tices, and the ris­ing costs of every­thing – food, fuel, child­care, health­care, con­struc­tion mate­ri­als, homes, rent – have all wreaked hav­oc on this coun­try as of late. Or at least it’s now being seen fully.

The cab­i­net­mak­er, Matthew, does work as a sub­con­trac­tor to make ends meet between his own jobs. He’s respon­si­ble for a few work­ers and always wants them to have decent work and be paid fair­ly. For 15 years, he’d had a great rela­tion­ship with that big-box com­pa­ny. But recent­ly, they changed their busi­ness meth­ods and pay struc­tures. While work­ing to pay his employ­ees a decent wage, he’s not receiv­ing fair com­pen­sa­tion any­more from the big com­pa­ny. He opined that this con­glom­er­ate is cut­ting cor­ners wher­ev­er it can to raise the stock price in antic­i­pa­tion of the com­pa­ny president’s retire­ment next year. The new “super­vi­sor” at the big box, he says, comes to the job with a degree in busi­ness but no actu­al busi­ness acu­men, con­struc­tion expe­ri­ence, build­ing exper­tise, or basic knowl­edge of tools. If he did, Matthew shared, they’d have to pay every­one a lot more money.

This was just one person’s sto­ry of how his world is chang­ing overnight. I hear count­less more from strug­gling folks in the com­mu­ni­ty with lit­tle or no income to even think of sur­viv­ing prop­er­ly. One guy shared that he was offered a job in town, but he had no sav­ings to pur­chase work clothes, espe­cial­ly a good pair of boots or trans­porta­tion to get to work. Let’s not even think about the sav­ings nest egg required to come up with a secu­ri­ty deposit and the first month’s rent to give him and his fam­i­ly a decent place to live. He said he real­ly wants to work but just can’t afford it. The long road ahead had him start by liv­ing with friends, accept­ing hand-me-down clothes, and either walk­ing or bik­ing six miles each way to the new job. He prays he doesn’t get sick, that he has access to a show­er, and that his bike isn’t stolen. 

Welcome to our world.

  • Jim Trimble

    Jim Trimble is a priest serv­ing Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Winchester. He grew up in Louisville, grad­u­at­ed from Murray State University, and worked in a vari­ety of roles at pub­lic radio sta­tions for 12 years. After sem­i­nary and ordi­na­tion, he served church­es in Kentucky and South Carolina. Married to Nancy Gift, a Berea College pro­fes­sor, he has a son and two step-daugh­ters, along with a num­ber of dogs, cats, and chick­ens near College Park.