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Living on the Fault-Line

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“[The old world] doesn’t exist any more. I was going to be there. I was going to buy a house, have a wife, kids...then retire and go off into happy land, but not anymore. I’m not starting over, but I’m nowhere near making the money I was making before. We were living well before. Now we’re getting by.”

    –Chip Hogue, who thought he’d follow his parents’ footsteps at General Dynamics, the aerospace giant that dominated much of San Diego before closing down, taking with it the dreams and plans of many.

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America is galloping headlong towards an economic future built around Information Age industries and the global marketplace. Nowhere is the pace of change faster, or the promise of the New Economy seemingly brighter than in San Diego, which proclaims itself the “city of the future.”

Like America as a whole, San Diego has accomplished a remarkable economic turnaround in only a few years since being knocked flat after the collapse of the aerospace industry, anchor of the local economy. Its comeback has been powered by glittering high tech industries - wireless communications, computer software, and biotech. In this hour, correspondent Hedrick Smith looks at some of San Diego’s most dynamic young companies, from booming Qualcomm to tiny but aggressive Presto Studios.

But in the midst of this gold rush, Hedrick Smith pauses to see how the middle class is coping with the transition from the old manufacturing economy to the city of the future. He finds highly skilled managers and workers who are struggling because their skills are no longer valued, and who bounce from job to job, worrying about their future and their vanishing leisure and family time. For many, the American Dream is running in reverse; in an up economy, they are moving down.

Living on the Fault-Line begins with the story of San Diego’s economic rebirth, and its conscious strategy to yoke its future to entrepreneurial, high-tech companies. Smith also visits the Hogues, who typified the old city that banked on one huge company, General Dynamics, to underpin the entire regional economy and provide economic security for all. Like 15% of the population of San Diego, three generations of Hogues worked at GD, believing that they would always work there. But that faith, as well as the company they worked for, are casualties of a new economy.

Even Qualcomm, San Diego’s proudest success story, shows both the strengths and the downside of the new economy. Smith discovers that Qualcomm is really not one but two companies. For its skilled engineers and computer programmers, it is a generous employer offering ample benefits and long-term prospects. But for people working in its manufacturing division, Qualcomm is an unpredictable employer – leaning heavily on temp workers, hiring when new product cycles begin, firing literally at a moment’s notice. Smith talks with Qualcomm employees from CEO Irwin Jacobs to college-educated employees who compare working as temps to walking on a tightrope.

Another aspect of the new economy that catches the attention of Smith and his producers, Barak Goodman and Tia Lessin, is what one sociologist has called the increasing stress of “the time bind” – the competing pulls of family, home, kids and two careers. In a report that typifies the problems of many working couples, Smith explores the dilemmas and heartache of the Mitchell family. Karen Mitchell feels pushed to hang onto a job that requires her to work from 50-to-80 hour weeks, to protect both her income and her benefits, but at the price of seeing far too little of her two small children. Her husband, John Mitchell, pulls double-duty, taking care of the family and holding down a full-time job.

Qualcomm temporary employee Diane Fritts, who works a 12-hour shift that leaves little time for her four-year-old daughter, tells of the heartache she feels when forced to choose between her job and her family. While waiting patiently to become a regular employee with benefits and job security, Fritts is often forced to works weekends and worries about taking time off when her daughter gets sick.

If high tech flexibility is part one of San Diego’s economic strategy, part two is using the lure of cheap production just across the border at Tijuana, Mexico to attract new industries to the region. San Diego’s hope is to create high-end, spill-over jobs in San Diego from the new manufacturing plants in Mexico. But surprisingly, Smith bumps into a story of how San Diego, and America, may in fact be helping to create a competitor for the future south of the border.

In one final personal story, Living on the Fault-Line looks behind the job statistics which have driven unemployment in San Diego – and across America as well – down to the lowest levels in many years. What Smith finds is the ghosts of the new economy, people with jobs but working way below their skill-level and their potential. He meets a former Navy Top Gun project manager who in desperation took a job at a hardware store for just over $10 an hour after being unable to land a better position despite sending out 150 resumes and taking two graduate-level programs to update his skills. Stunned by their father’s fate, this man’s three college-educated sons have lowered their career sights. All now work part-time for a grocery store chain and live at home. They are a troubling omen for the next generation.

Episode Two of Surviving the Bottom Line with Hedrick Smith, Living on the Fault-Line, airs in January on PBS.

[Episode Two Transcript] [Mitchell Interview ] [Fritts Interview]
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