ERIE, Pa. — When Donald Trump came here in 2016, he blasted Democrats for decimating the region’s once-vaunted manufacturing sector and pledged to reverse the decay.
“We’re going to put people back to work,” he said at a rally that summer. “We’re not playing games, and it’s going to go quickly.”
But more than three years into Trump’s presidency, Erie County has 19,000 manufacturing jobs, fewer than when Trump took office and the smallest number since 2010, when the U.S. was still recovering from the Great Recession.
“When you hear that Trump is bragging about the economy, I know better — it’s not trickling down to the workers at all. It’s staying in the boardrooms,” said Bryan Pietrzak, a machinist at Wabtec, Erie’s largest manufacturer, which builds locomotives and cut about 100 jobs late last year. The company has reduced Pietrzak’s schedule to every other week.
“I was willing to give Trump a chance. I didn’t vote for him, but he’s failed in every aspect,” said Pietrzak, 39, a Bernie Sanders supporter.
Trump’s inability to change the manufacturing trajectory goes beyond this county on the coast of Lake Erie, in Pennsylvania’s northwest corner. Statewide, the trend line during Trump’s tenure looks almost identical to what came before: cycles of relatively small rises and falls. After an early surge under Trump, Pennsylvania lost 7,400 manufacturing jobs from late 2018 through the end of 2019.
The state has averaged 565,600 manufacturing jobs each month in Trump’s first three years in office, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In President Barack Obama’s last three years: 566,100.
Here in Erie County, some manufacturers said they have grown amid a robust national economy. But interviews with more than two dozen workers, business leaders, and economists echo data showing that overall, there has been little change: no traumatic losses, no boom.
At best, most workers in manufacturing expressed relief at just being employed.
“I’m happy I still have a job,” Laurie Sheridan, an administrative assistant at Wabtec who supports Trump, said as she had lunch with a friend who had been laid off.
Trump won over blue-collar voters in politically vital states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin with promises to invigorate manufacturing, a source of good-paying jobs, local vitality, and symbolic pride. Erie, once a blue-collar Democratic stronghold that twice supported Obama, saw a 21,000 vote swing to Trump in a state decided by just 44,000 votes. Similar post-industrial counties such as Luzerne and Lackawanna shifted even more.
Despite his big manufacturing promises and modest local results, for many supporters here, a disdain for Democrats and admiration for the president’s combative persona counted more than almost anything else.
“Objectively speaking, seriously, there’s been no real change,” Paul Swindlehurst, a prison guard, said at a smoky bar where locals avoid Yuengling because of its anti-union reputation. Still, Swindlehurst, 53, believes Trump is fighting for working class people.
“I wouldn’t want to work for him," Swindlehurst said. "I think he’s a tool, but, yeah, I’m going to vote for him again. He’s shaking up Washington.”
At the same table sat Jenna Matis, an engineer recently laid off from a thriving local manufacturer, Lord Corp. Matis, 27, said she felt like one of the lucky ones, because others were older and put in far more time at the company.
Pennsylvania had 565,100 manufacturing jobs in December, according to the latest regional data — an increase of 0.7% from when Trump took office. That’s fewer manufacturing jobs than the state had for most of Obama’s second term, though the count declined sharply in the year leading up to Trump’s Nov. 2016 election. (Pietrzak lost his job in that 2016 downturn, but returned in 2018).
The manufacturing figures are of course just part of otherwise strong economic figures fueling Trump’s reelection hopes. Overall unemployment has fallen from 6.3% to 4.7% in Erie County. New downtown investment has brightened the mood in the long-beleaguered city of Erie.
Pennsylvania payrolls hit a record high in January, though unemployment has ticked up, too, as more people seek jobs.
All the jobs data, though, is from before the coronavirus outbreak, which experts now fear could hammer manufacturing and the economy more broadly.
Michigan and Wisconsin have fared better than Pennsylvania in restoring manufacturing jobs, each exceeding the figures seen under Obama — though they, too, have seen recent erosion as manufacturing nationwide trudged through a downturn in 2019.
“Pennsylvania’s manufacturing since the end of the Great Recession has ebbed and flowed," and that hasn’t changed, said Joel Naroff, a Bucks County economist.
In Erie, education and health service jobs have overtaken manufacturing, said Kenneth Louie, an economist at Penn State Behrend. That matches national trends. Erie Insurance recently surpassed Wabtec as the top employer. “The new services jobs, however, typically pay less than those in manufacturing,” Louie said.
Still, a Mercyhurst College poll last month found that 32% of voters in Erie County see the local economy as “excellent” or “good" — triple from when Trump took office.
“I’ve never seen Erie County voters more optimistic,” Mercyhurst pollster Joe Morris said.
In blustery downtown Erie, Corey Harris said he had gone from relying on food stamps while working nursing jobs to landing a manufacturing position at Lord Corp. that helped him make $60,000 last year.
“I made the most money I ever made,” said Harris, a self-described “die-hard” Republican. He recently opened a pizza and wings shop, and put “Trump Citrus Wings” on the menu.
Even Harris has seen a recent slowdown. Lord Corp. cut his work to every other week. But he said he stands behind Trump, and believes the economy will kick up again after the election.
“President Trump has delivered on his campaign promise to fight for American workers," said Sarah Matthews, a Trump campaign spokeswoman. “The 2020 Democrat candidates want to eliminate union-negotiated healthcare and ban fracking, which would have a devastating impact on Pennsylvania’s manufacturing industry.”
Democrats say that beneath the statistics, workers have enjoyed limited gains.
American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC, recently launched a series of television and radio ads pressing that case in several post-industrial areas, including Erie. Another group, Priorities USA, has a similar campaign.
In Erie, many are happy that Wabtec is still in business after the company bought the local facility from General Electric. But Wabtec instituted lower pay for new hires, and in recent months cut jobs through layoffs and attrition. The company attributed the reduction to typical business cycles.
Some businesses and areas are gaining.
The northeastern region of Pennsylvania that includes Luzerne and Lackawanna counties has grown slowly but steadily, and has more manufacturing jobs than at any time since 2009.
And even while Erie’s job count has dwindled, many manufacturers are humming.
“We have had nothing but growth and it feels to me like my peers have been the same way because everybody’s busy,” said Robin Scheppner, the third-generation leader of the American Tinning & Galvanizing Company downtown.
But she downplayed the impact of national policy. “I’m still trying to figure out if there was a real benefit from the tax cuts," she said. "Manufacturing is alive and well in Erie... and I don’t think that one president who’s been there for three years can take credit for that.”
Volvo Construction’s plant in Shippensburg, southwest of Harrisburg, saw a surge in orders and hiring starting in 2017, said Stephen Roy, the division’s senior vice president of North America. He said it set sales records last year, with help from tax cuts and deregulation that spurred new construction projects and demand for Volvo’s pavers and other equipment.
Yet Volvo also enacted “voluntary separations” late last year after the facility built up enough inventory to catch up with orders, Roy said.
One harsh irony is that some manufacturers are thriving by using new technology that has reduced the need for workers, said Louie, of Penn State.
“A lot of our manufacturers are very busy and are looking for people,” said Kathy Dahlkemper, the Erie County Executive and a former Democratic congresswoman. But, she added, “the jobs in manufacturing are decreasing even if the manufacturing output is not.”
Machines have eliminated low-skilled jobs that often pay well for people without college degrees. Now manufacturers need employees with tech backgrounds to keep the machines running, demanding skills the community often lacks, Dahlkemper said. High school is the top education level for some 40% of Erie adults. The county is fighting to open a community college.
On a recent morning at Viking Plastics in rural Corry, a few miles south of the New York state border, a robot pressed green seals into small plastic caps used to cap refrigerant in cars. Twenty years ago, two dozen people might have done the same thing by hand, said Kelly Goodsel, Viking’s president and CEO.
The increased efficiency helped Viking expand and give raises, while also bringing on higher-paid workers to troubleshoot the machines, Goodsel said. Viking grew its revenue by 250% at its Corry headquarters and nearly doubled staffing there, to 120, since 2010.
“The economic environment the last four years have given business owners and businesses more confidence to make investments,” Goodsel said.
At the same time, he said, tariffs on plastic molds imported from China, part of Trump’s long-running trade war, have added costs and uncertainty, and he has seen signs of sluggishness. After years of economic gains, many people have bought the cars and refrigerators they needed, so there’s less demand for the plastic parts Viking provides for those products.
Viking workers said they’ve received bonuses, but that their lives haven’t changed much as a result of the economy. Like others, they were happy just to have jobs.