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Factory towns still shed jobs

In Mississippi River communities, uptick in economy doesn't stop tide of layoffs.

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Five blocks south of the village hall in Roxana, Ill., Route 111 stretches into a neat dividing line. On one side, one of the nation's oldest refineries (now owned by Phillips 66) produces some 300,000 barrels of oil products a day. "Our operation is steady," says a company spokeswoman.

But on the other side, the smaller Premcor refinery is slated to close. Headquarters has decided it's not worth upgrading the plant to meet federal clean-air laws.

The closure threatens the plant's hometown of Hartford. Worse, it follows a string of closings reverberating throughout the industrial southern Illinois communities that lie across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

The fortunes of the two plants tell a story of how the revival of the American economy, now widely acknowledged to be under way, is far from uniform or robust across the nation's manufacturing belt. It also points to larger forces at work that are changing the very culture of small towns in the Midwest that often have known only one kind of job since early this century.

"We've literally lost thousands of manufacturing jobs over the last couple of years," says Jim Pennekamp of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, the regional economic development group. "What you're looking at nationally is something as big as the Industrial Revolution."

While evidence certainly exists here that the economy is beginning to turn around – production is up, orders are starting to roll in – many plants are still closing, still pushing workers into unemployment lines. Some of those factories and jobs will never come back. Their disappearance is forcing blue-collar communities to cut teachers, curtail city services, and dip into their reserves.

Although the shift from manufacturing to services looks natural, even inevitable, on the national level, it looks far tougher and grittier in the communities struggling to make the transition.

Indeed, just as factories pulled more workers out of agriculture a century ago, the service sector is grabbing a larger share of the economy today. The growth of services is not only dwarfing manufacturing's share of the work force (now at under 14 percent, a low not seen for more than a century). It has also reduced the actual number of factory jobs to 17.7 million workers last year, the lowest total since 1964.

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