America | Redefining Hope

America - Redefining Hope

ERIE, Pa. -- For hundreds of thousands of Americans, last year's election was a jobs election. Manufacturing in America reached its peak in the 1950s and has been in steady decline ever since. Big promises were made on the campaign trail that the decline could be reversed -- and fast.

Some parts of the country have already started to refocus by optimizing their economies for higher-tech industries, but other areas -- such as Erie, Pennsylvania -- have not fared as well. In "America | Redefining Hope" -- a new documentary airing on CBSN Monday June 19 -- CBSN Originals returns to Erie to investigate if the hoped-for turnaround in fortunes, pegged to a changing of the guard in Washington, has materialized.

The town lost more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs as the once-powerful industrial sector shrank -- and the remaining jobs are not as lucrative as they once were, and often snapped up due to a demographic shift. Erie is now home to one of the nation's largest refugee populations, many of whom are more than willing to take whatever jobs remain in the manufacturing sector -- some of which only pay $12 an hour.

General Electric (GE) Transportation has been a part of Erie's firmament for decades. At one point, more than 16,000 area residents were employed by the industrial giant. Now, it's closer to 3,000, and many of those jobs simply aren't an option for people laid off from the production line. Whereas once, GE jobs in Erie only required a high-school diploma, now, industrial giants are more often looking for computer programmers and engineers to fill more advanced roles.

The Economics of Hope

In recent years, town officials in Erie have made a big push towards adding jobs within the tourism sector by promoting its vineyards and waterfront attractions. But locals say this will only last for a portion of the year, perhaps three months at most. And while tourism remains Erie's fastest growing sector, it accounts for less than 10 percent of the workforce.

During the 2016 election, President Donald Trump managed to turn the Rust Belt area red for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in office. Many life-long Democrats believed fresh political thinking would help their struggling manufacturing town turn a corner. In the weeks following Mr. Trump's first 100 days in office, the nation remained as divided as it had been during the election.

CBS News correspondent Jamie Yuccas traveled to Erie to speak with locals about the fight for blue-collar jobs. Here are some of their stories.

Justin Gallagher

Justin Gallagher is a college senior whose family has lived in Erie for five generations -- a long line of Democrats. But in the last election, three generations of his family voted Republican.

"I think Donald Trump has the vision of following through on a lot of the campaign promises that he made," Gallagher said. "And I think he's trying to do it. He's made it very clear what he wants to do and what he wants to accomplish in the four-year term. He's learned in the first 100 days that sometimes Congress is not going to cooperate."

Gallagher ultimately wants to develop his career in his beloved home town but he's been applying for jobs outside of Erie as a back-up plan. He's a determined young man who's shown drive beyond his years in three short years of college -- he became the youngest person ever elected to Erie's school board, winning his seat aged 19.

While the job rejection letters continue to pile up, Gallagher says he still feels confident about his future in Erie, and is considering going back to school for an MBA.

"At some point, somebody has to be the voice," he said. "Somebody has to be a leader and somebody has to take action. Maybe it's possible that I could be the voice for more people."

Todd Burnett

Todd Burnett was laid off after working nearly nine years with GE. Now, he works for nearly half of his old salary at an automation company, making parts for machinery.

"I made more money, and I got more for my money, 10 years ago," Burnett said. "We're actually working more for way less right now than we did 10 years ago."

According to Burnett, the number of people seeking manufacturing jobs in Erie has increased, but there are limited opportunities in the area.

"You have the same groups of people kind of moving around in groups trying to get these same jobs," he explained. "I'm fortunate I have a good skill set. I can land good jobs, but there's not many of those out there."

He identified the low wages and those willing to accept them -- in Erie in particular -- as part of the problem.

"When you have people who are willing to accept those wages, you kind of set the standard for what's acceptable," Burnett said. "If you have a lot of these people filling those positions, that's now the new norm. So how do you expect to bring that wage back up again?"

Overall, he says he feels hopeful about the future of manufacturing in town.

Jim Stewart

After 54 years, Jim Stewart is leaving Erie. He lost his job at GE about a year ago, and entered a training program to become an HVAC repairman.

He's preparing to move to New Mexico in search of something he's convinced he can't find in Erie.

"I don't have a job," Steward said. "That's why I have to move so I can find a job. If I don't see the house, eventually, the bank will do a short sale on it, which means they take it over and sell it for whatever they can."

Stewart put his house up for sale on the market more than four months ago. So far, no prospective buyers have made an offer. 

The expense of two mortgages is not an option for Stewart as he begins his fresh start in another state.