Worker at Maryland Thermoform Corp.

Baltimore County's traditional manufacturers have been replaced by smaller, technology-focused firms. At Maryland Thermoform Corp., Suchat Scribunjerd operates a machine that makes moldings for the company's specialty plastics products. (SunSpot photo by Eric Addison / July 28, 2003)

When John Thornton came to Baltimore from Oxford, N.C., in 1956 to visit an uncle, he didn't expect to stay.

But 47 years later, the retired steelmaker is like many who put down roots here.

Shortly after arriving, Thornton found work at a restaurant on the grounds of Bethlehem Steel Corp. at Sparrow's Point, settled in Turner's Station, an African-American community in Dundalk, and married.

He retired in 1991 at age 62, having raised five children in the rowhome his job as a steelmaker afforded him on a quiet, tree-lined street in Turner's.

Thornton's life story is so common as to be almost cliché in Baltimore County. But for many, the story has changed. Once a national leader in manufacturing, Baltimore County now is leading the way in retreat.

And as the employment environment changes with this trend, the county's workers are adapting. Those working for large, long-established manufacturers now must accept a more competitive job market and less job security than in the past. Others are moving to newer, smaller higher-tech firms that some say represent the future of manufacturing.

Even still, workers in very large numbers are moving into the county's lower-paying retail and service sectors, where the job opportunities are more widely known.

"The county had a huge industrial base and the Baltimore region did," said Dunbar Brooks, chairman of the Turner's Station Development Corp. from 1980 to 2000. The longtime resident is manager of data development for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council.

"Many of those manufacturing jobs have either disappeared, gone overseas or have automated, computerized -- and therefore don't need as many people," Brooks said. "That meant people had to then switch over.

"The economy is changing everybody, basically -- countywide, statewide, in essence, nationwide."

A bustling economy

In its heyday, during World War II, Baltimore County was bustling with manufacturing activity.

The Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. employed 53,000 people in Middle River. Western Electric Co. had 9,000 workers at Point Breeze. Bethlehem Steel -- the nation's top war contractor a month after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 -- peaked at 35,000 employees in 1959; 6,000 worked at the company's affiliates that year, including its shipyard.

Other major contributors to the county's labor force in the late 1950s included Aircraft Armaments Inc. (900 employees), Black & Decker Corp. (2,700), Westinghouse Electric Corp. (1,200), Kaiser Aluminum Corp. (1,000) and Bendix Radio Corp. (more than 2,000).

In 1960, the total number of manufacturing workers in Baltimore County totaled nearly 66,000.

By 1990, this number had shrunk to slightly more than 47,000 -- and the slide continued over the next decade, to a little more than 34,000 jobs in 2000, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. The county's 28 percent job loss in its manufacturing sector mirrored the industry's loss statewide. Maryland's manufacturing employment decreased by 34.1 percent over the period. By contrast, the share of the county's jobs in the lower-paying services sector increased to 32.4 percent, from 26.1 percent.

David S. Iannucci, Baltimore County's executive director of economic development, views the numbers this way:

"Manufacturing represents 14 percent of the economy nationwide," Iannucci said. "In Maryland, it's 7 percent. Baltimore County, about 9 percent. Given what's happening internationally, with the tremendous, unprecedented growth of China as a manufacturing sector with a far lower cost basis, it must be assumed that manufacturing in the United States overall will face incredible competitive pressure."

For many, fairly or not, Beth Steel's bankruptcy in 2001 and its subsequent sale to International Steel Group Inc. in April have become shorthand: a measure of the health of the county's entire manufacturing sector and a symbol of its status in this worldwide industry.