Unemployed in Elkhart

A veteran of Indiana's RV industry tells his story of small-town collapse and life after layoffs.

By Steven Gray, contributor

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Chuck Stouder of Elkhart, Ind.: "I've come to the conclusion that I'll have to find something that pays a little less -- maybe teaching, or coaching little league. It's something I enjoy."

ELKHART COUNTY, Ind. (Fortune) -- Even as Chuck Stouder campaigned for then-Senator Barack Obama last fall, the Elkhart, Ind., man was facing a personal crisis: His long career in the RV industry was coming to a close. He's since lost his job. Now, Stouder, 58 years old, tells his story:

"I had 22 years in the industry -- ended up working at Lippert Components, as the set-up guy. We stamped out the parts for RVs and mobile-home frames. I knew the job, was good at it, and it paid the bills.

"The layoffs were gradual, starting in late 2007, when they began shutting down plants. Then, they went from three shifts to two. I was doing about 30 hours a week. I'd seen the decline before, but this one made me nervous. It was just a feeling.

"The slowdown became clear in the summer of 2008, the time of year we should have been picking up, when the RV industry goes gangbusters. In the spring and summer, places tend to hire. But this time, we weren't adding people. When people left, they weren't being replaced. I watched the trend and said, 'That's not good.'

"I got the news right at Christmas. Usually, we get off for a couple weeks. They called me and said, 'Everybody's on permanent layoff.' I was somewhat paralyzed. I'm 58 years old. And it's really tough making a major career change when you haven't had that big college degree. I had some college behind me, but couldn't afford to finish. Any career change at that point would have required a massive pay cut. You get used to your lifestyle.

"I filed for unemployment. I was working for some friends for some odd cash. I've applied for jobs, but so far, no calls back. I read the newspaper and see another company laying off hundreds of workers. I'm going to investigate going back to school, I guess. I've come to the conclusion that I'll have to find something that pays a little less -- maybe teaching, or coaching little league. It's something I enjoy.

"It's not like I'm overwhelmed with bills. Vicki and I have been together 14 years. Might as well be married. She's a nurse, has a couple of kids, but no grandkids yet. Our house is paid for. My car is paid for. I still have a little money left in the bank. So we're fortunate. The only thing is, I don't have any major outside investments other than my IRA, and I don't want to touch that.

"Will the RV industry bounce back? Yes, it will. But not in the same form. Some of the weaker players will be shaken out. They're already redesigning how they do things -- the towables, for example, will be lighter. They'll use a lot more composite materials, like fiberglass. They'll be more fuel-efficient. It's a pretty innovative group.

"Would I go back? Part of me says yes, because of the money. Part of me says, at age 58, if I can find something that's a little easier on my body, I'll take it.

"President Obama, he's doing all he can. I'm not convinced about how some of the money's being thrown around. But I'm a skeptic about everything. He's right that healthcare has got to be changed. We've got to have some form of single-payer system available. I lost health insurance when I lost my job. I'm applying for veterans benefits. I was paying about $20 a week for my healthcare. But I was smart enough to know that my company was paying at least twice that amount.

"That adds up. That's money that can be put into innovation, creating jobs, at higher wages. I'm sympathetic to companies, to some extent. But healthcare is a really major thing." To top of page

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