'Reverse migration': why the frost belt doesn't look so bad after all

Jobs in Michigan are scarce these days, and Jim Marshall hasn't got one. But after 11 months in the greener employment pastures of Houston, with its humid heat and ample insect and snake life, Jim, his wife Sue, and their four children are just glad to be back in the frost belt.

''All of us are completely satisfied to be home,'' says Sue, who is working on a food co-op project at the kitchen table of her handsomely restored five-bedroom house. It was only rented while they were away, so they were able to move back in when the experiment didn't pan out.

''I knew I wanted to come back after I was there two weeks,'' she recalls. ''I have no desire to go anywhere else at all at this point, and I don't think I'll ever go back down there, even to visit.''

The Marshalls went South in July 1980 to help relatives with an oil drilling operation about 35 miles outside of Houston. Unlike many others who have fled unemployment in the North, Jim had a job when he left - as a linesman for the Consumer Power & Electric Company - and he had one lined up at the new location. Many who move are out of work, have exhausted their unemployment benefits, and have no firm job offer at the other end.

''We went strictly for the money - we were hoping to make so much more,'' says Sue. The money in Texas was all right, but other facets of Sunbelt living finally pushed them back home. One hundred degree daily heat, cramped living quarters in a trailer, and protecting the children from red fire ants and rattlesnakes were a few of the challenges.

While the Marshalls went south for the money, others are moving back to the North for the same reason. Skilled workers tend to earn as much in the nonunion Sunbelt states as up north, but relatively unskilled assembly-line workers, used to $12-to-$14 an hour, often have to settle for half that wage and they find housing harder to get and more expensive.

''Some who come back here say they couldn't find a place to live that wouldn't cost them an arm and a leg,'' says one interviewer with the Michigan Employment Security Office in Dearborn, home of the Ford Motor Company. ''A lot of the auto workers are finding there aren't any common labor jobs - you're either a dishwasher or an electronic technician.''

''It's not so much disappointment at not finding a job as that many of them can't afford to work for the salaries they're getting,'' agrees Jane MacLaren, an interviewer in the Lansing Job Service Office.

Keepers of labor statistics do not have an accurate count or even good estimate of how many of those who headed south have actually returned. Indeed, most who move stick with a one-way trip. But both moving companies and employment offices confirm that reverse migration is occurring.

''We have them come in all the time - they account for about half of all the people coming to our adjudication unit,'' says Mary Riley, a supervisor with the state unemployment compensation office in the Detroit suburb of Livonia.

''Most of those coming back have family ties and just feel more comfortable here,'' says John Gromo, a Detroit sales representative with Mayflower of Michigan, a moving firm. ''They find jobs, but often the income is less and there's a very difficult adjustment period.''

''I think it's normal to get some backflow,'' suggests Dr. Allan Hunt, a senior research economist with the Michigan-based Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. ''People miss the support of family and friends in strange places. . . . And a lot of people probably aren't as well informed about the job prospects as they might be before making the leap, and realize in the end that they've made a mistake.''

The Marshalls' disillusionment with the Sunbelt is shared by Ann and Brian Stine of St. John's, Mich. They headed for Corpus Christi, Texas, last February after Mr. Stine was laid off by a lumber company. In Texas he did odd jobs at the minimum wage, scarcely enough to meet the $450 monthly rent for their three-bedroom accommodations. He had wanted an oil rig job, but saw it would keep him away from his family for long hours, even weeks at a time. One month later the family decided to return home, and he got his old job back.

''There are a lot of jobs down there, but what we had back here was better than what we had down there,'' explains Ann Stine.

Jim Marshall was not so fortunate as Brian Stine on reaching his old home base. When he returned, his old job was gone, and he hasn't yet been able to find permanent work.

''He'd like to work for an oil company, but we can't get past the secretaries to get an appointment,'' says Sue. ''It's probably a good thing we didn't know the job market was this tight or we might never have come back.''

Clyde Duncan, assistant manager of the Michigan Employment Security Office in Livonia, offers this note of caution to anyone thinking of relocating: ''If you don't have a job, don't go.''

Bill Kastanier, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Labor, adds a warning that a lot of the jobs in the South may be more demanding than what Northern assembly-line workers have grown used to.

''A lot of the unskilled jobs are very physical,'' he says. ''I don't want to say that Michiganites aren't used to 12-to-14 hour workdays, but if you haven't done that for a long time it can be long and arduous.''

At the same time as some Northerners are heading home after job forays in the Sunbelt, others who originally came north during World War II are returning to the South. Craig Morningstar, who supervises state employment services in Ypsilanti, Mich., says that many of the Southerners who moved there in the 1940s to work in auto and bomber plants are now moving ''home'' to Arkansas, Kentucky, and Alabama, where they still have family ties.

Mayflower's John Gromo says that a number of blacks and whites from the South who live in East Detroit have been joining in this migration.

''They don't necessarily have jobs, but they feel they can survive better where they have relatives,'' he says. ''It's the old-timers, and their main concern is getting away from the violence, the lack of jobs, and the expense.''

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