In the 1960s, Lexington workers could get a job at one of the three big employers on the north side Lexington — Trane, Square D or IBM typewriter — and buy a middle-class home in the area’s then-booming subdivisions.
Today, the IBM typewriter plant is long gone, the company having morphed into a printer company called Lexmark, which only employs 1,400 now in Lexington, down from 2,300 in 2015.
Square D has become Schneider Electric and employs 515 people.
And recently, Trane announced it is closing after 55 years, a move that will leave 600 hourly workers without jobs.
The union-represented jobs at the Lexington plant will move to a non-union plant in South Carolina where the plant has land for expansion, according to Ingersoll Rand, Trane’s parent company. The Lexington plant will close in 2019.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” said Scotty Hall, who has been with Trane for 27 years. “It’s been a living, but you never know.”
The plant closing announcement in early October was surprising and upsetting to a number of Trane employees.
“There was a lot of animosity toward it,” said employee Thomas Walker. “There was quite a few of us that jumped up and left the meeting room.”
Justin Smyth, 42, has worked for Trane since he was 19.
The news of the plant closing “surprised all of us,” Smyth said.
“It seemed our factory was doing so well. They were telling us we had so many orders we couldn’t fill them.”
What’s his future hold? “I’ll probably get to stay close to when they close the doors, but fortunately for me, I have recently graduated from college.”
Smyth graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in technology and computer electronics and hopes to work in the IT field after he leaves Trane.
Like the city, he’s transitioning.
In Lexington, manufacturing has declined, going from 16 percent of local employment in 2001 to 12 percent today, according to figures provided by Commerce Lexington. Still, manufacturing remains the second-largest employment category, right behind health care and social services at 14 percent.
Average Trane pay ranges from $10.90 an hour for line assembler to $23.47 an hour for control panel technician, according to the job website Indeed.com
Nationwide manufacturing has taken a hit: The United States’ share of global manufacturing activity declined from 28 percent in 2002; to just over 18 percent in 2016. China became the largest manufacturing country in 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service.
While Lexington’s manufacturing base has undergone a decline since the glory days of Trane, Square D and IBM, options have grown as the economy is more diverse, with employers such as Amazon.
“Kentucky ... became a national leader in distribution and logistics industry — think UPS, DHL and Amazon — and Amazon’s presence in Lexington certainly reflects that,” Jack Mazurak, communications director for the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, said in an e-mail.
Also, Lexington’s tech and ag-tech industries, fueled by the University of Kentucky and the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, add to the diversity, Mazyrak said. “And the automotive industry blossomed, bringing parts suppliers, service providers and companies specializing in prototyping, CNC (computer numerical control) machining, custom fabrication and robotics, among other areas.”
Lexington still employs manufacturing workers — Webasto, the sunroof and roof systems manufacturer, added 183 jobs this year alone and sits in the same industrial park as thriving Big Ass Fans, which employs 770. That kind of employment growth is accompanied by new-economy jobs at Amazon’s fulfillment center, which added 600 jobs in 2018.
Manufacturing has also spread into surrounding counties: The impact of Georgetown’s Toyota plant can be felt in Fayette County and others nearby. The plant employs more than 8,000 full-time workers in Scott County.
As of last week, Scotty Hall, financial secretary of the United Auto Workers local 912 in Lexington which represents the Trane workers, said company employees were still waiting for answers about their future. Some want to know what the severance package is going to be. Those close to retirement want to know if there’s an early retirement option available.
Hall said that meetings with unemployment counselors, the state Rapid Response team, operated by the Kentucky Career Center, and Trane management are scheduled to happen this week.
Kevin Atkins, development officer for the Lexington city government, said that because Lexington’s economy has become more diverse than it was when some of the local manufacturing businesses were in their prime, he sees a vigorous job market available for those left unemployed by Trane.
“There have already been inquiries being made about the Trane employees,” Atkins said. “Their skillsets, in most cases, are transferable, and that’s what the companies are looking for.”
Thomas Wilson has worked at Trane for 17 1/2 years. He found out that Trane was planning on closing down the plant at the same time as other workers at the plant earlier this month, “but we had suspicions prior to that.”
Because he’s about to get his bachelor’s degree in marketing from Indiana Wesleyan University and hopes to go into real estate, Wilson has been preparing for a career switch.
Still, he said, the announcement of the plant’s closing was a rough bit of news to take.
“Honestly, everybody was upset,” Wilson said. “I feel like they’re going to phase out in increments, and then we will be working our way out the door.”