Jill Schennum of Blairstown may have grown up in the world of Mad Men, the daughter of an advertising executive, but today as an anthropologist her domain looks a lot more like The Hunger Games.
Professor of anthropology at County College of Morris (CCM) since 1998, Schennum for the past several years has been studying the economic disparities that have resulted from the loss of union jobs, pension plans and health insurance. Specifically, her research examines the changes steelworkers experienced in their lives following the bankruptcy and then the closing of Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania at the turn of this century.
In her Ph.D. dissertation, Bethlehem Steelworkers: Reshaping the Industrial Working Class, Schennum traced the experiences of those workers who joined Bethlehem Steel from 1964-1979. When those workers were hired, the steel industry was thriving as a core segment of an industrialized U.S. Unions were strong, pensions seemingly guaranteed, and a job basically was held for life, she says. “It was a world where steelworkers performed hard and dangerous work but a world where they also earned a good living and gained middle-class status,” notes Schennum.
By the time the plant closed, however, pensions were reduced, health coverage lost and the majority of steelworkers either ended up retired with much less than they expected or hired by other companies at significantly lower wages.
“What I’m looking at is the process of deindustrialization and what has happened to the industrial working class as we have moved to a post-industrial society,” says Schennum, who plans to turn her dissertation into a book. What has happened, she says, is that the decline of unions and the shift to a service economy have resulted in a “reduction in wages, benefits and control over work and the workplace.”
Prior to earning her Ph.D. from CUNY in 2011, Schennum earned her M.Ed. from Rutgers University, her M.A. in Cultural Anthropology from Boston University and her B.A. from Carleton College.
She explains she became interested in studying the steelworkers after working as a social worker in Bethlehem during the 1980s.
“The visual of the steel mills were so intriguing. It’s was all so huge and so tremendous. They dominated the landscape,” she recalls.
As a community college professor, Schennum says, she enjoys being part of an institution whose specific mission is to provide people with an affordable and accessible education to improve their lives. At CCM, Schennum teaches Anthropology, Cultural Geography and Sociology.
“Community colleges are great. They offer access and opportunity,” she says. “I also really enjoy being a teacher. I love it when students get excited about learning. It’s such a rewarding process.”