Jolt of blue-collar hope

The nearby factory that made Dodge Durangos closed eight years ago. The General Motors Boxwood Road Plant - open since 1947 - closed the next year. So did the oil refinery in Delaware City.

In the span of a year during the financial crisis, once-prosperous northern Delaware had to confront post-industrial devastation.

It's the sort of devastation that now has the country's attention. Mr Donald Trump won the presidency with huge margins in places left behind. He lost the popular vote but won 26 of the 30 lowest-income states, including the old powerhouses of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

These places are stuck in what I call the Great American Stagnation. Tens of millions of people have experienced scant progress for decades. Me- dian net worth is lower than in the 1980s, and middle-aged whites, shockingly, are not living as long as they used to. Ending this stagnation is the central political problem of our age: It fuels Trumpian anger and makes every other societal problem harder to solve.

I came here to New Castle looking for a jolt of hope after the terribly dispiriting presidential campaign. I came to see one of the more promising attacks on the Great American Stagnation.

In the wake of the financial crisis, Delaware's new governor Jack Markell and other officials did obvious things, like using stimulus money to stem the damage and even managing to reopen the refinery. But Mr Markell, who had run as an insurgent Democrat, understood that nostalgia alone would not help families pay their bills. So he began looking for ways to save old jobs and to create new ones. His answer wasn't original - but that's OK, because it was right.

Many people in New Castle, not to mention the industrial Midwest, feel a deep cultural connection to craftsmanship - to making things and working with their hands. They're not inspired by working in cubicles or comfortable offices.

In his almost eight years in office, he has made his No. 1 priority lifting the skills of Delaware's citizens. He worked on traditional education, expanding high-quality pre-K and helping low-income teenagers go to college. And he worked on what academic researchers like Robert Schwartz call "the forgotten half": The many students who will not graduate from college but who also need strong skills to find decent jobs. Their struggles are a major reason that America's workforce is no longer considered the world's most highly skilled.

It's too early for a final verdict in the state, but the signs are encouraging. High school graduation rates have jumped. Educational attainment is above average - as are incomes. The jobless rate is 4.3 per cent.

New Castle, on the Delaware River, is telling, because it has focused on skills while staying true to its blue-collar roots. It's home to the state's largest high school, William Penn, which has long educated the children of workers from General Motors and the refinery. By 2011, enrolment had fallen by nearly 20 per cent as students fled for other options.

"People came out and said, 'The high school is not serving the community,'" the former principal, Mr Jeffrey Menzer, told me. "They wanted more career opportunities, more hands-on stuff."

Mr Markell makes a similar point: "A lot of kids who drop out of high school - they don't drop out because they're not intelligent. They drop out because they think what they're learning is not relevant to the rest of their lives." William Penn reorganised itself into 20 "majors", and every student must pick one, be it manufacturing, computer science or agriculture. (The state has a broader version of the programme, called Pathways to Prosperity.) One goal, of course, is to prepare students for a career. When William Penn tried to start a nursing major, the state pushed back, pointing to a glut of such programmes - and the school started a medical-diagnostics major instead.

Having a major can also help students who do not know what they want to be when they grow up. It connects book learning to real life. It can help launch them into college or a certificate programme and avoid the epidemic of academic drift. No wonder enrolment at William Penn has improved.

Kiara Roach, a senior, told me that she didn't care about her grades, or do very well, until she became passionate about cooking. (As she told me this, I was enjoying a moist pork sandwich in a teacher cafe she helps run.) Mike Rodriguez, who one day hopes to start a heating-and-cooling business, said: "I get bored in class. I like standing up and working on something." Jacob Sobolesky, a junior, told me: "There's only so much you can learn from word of mouth."

Many people in New Castle, not to mention the industrial Midwest, feel a deep cultural connection to craftsmanship - to making things and working with their hands. They are not inspired by working in cubicles or comfortable offices. At the same time, they can't simply do as previous generations did and graduate from high school into a good job. They can't bring back yesterday's economy. They need blue-collar skill-building to thrive. The country has failed to provide nearly enough of that skill-building, and we're all living with the consequences.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Jolt of blue-collar hope'. Print Edition | Subscribe