BYE TO THE TIGER

 

Behind the headlines about lay-offs and redundancies are human stories, with thousands of workers having to adjust and redirect their lives. Here, three people discuss how they overcame the shock and forged a new path in new careers, writes MICHAEL KELLY.

THERE'S AN EERIE sense of deja vu about the current tranche of redundancy headlines, particularly for those who can remember the bleak days of the 1980s, when Ireland's dire economic situation earned us the unenviable nickname "The Sick Man of Europe". In the past year, 42,000 people have lost their jobs, up from 25,000 newly unemployed people the year before, and there's an increasing sense that, fuelled by a major downturn in the construction sector, the next 12 months could be considerably worse.

Anecdotally, most of the workers involved in the high-profile redundancies profiled here would seem to have moved on either to alternative employment or further education. In contrast to the 1980s, people do not seem to be afraid to try something different armed with their redundancy cheques - head back to college, travel the world, start up a new business. Up to now, many of those made redundant have taken solace from the fact that there were plentiful employment opportunities elsewhere.

But the risk now is that we may be reaching a tipping point. Significantly, in 2007 the number of new jobs being created fell as job losses increased, and this is bad news for the newly unemployed looking for jobs. In January of this year, the number of people on the live register increased by 7,800, the biggest month-on-month increase since 1980.

Some of the highest profile job losses last year - Pfizer, Boston Scientific, Abbot, Allergan - were in industries which the government has oft trumpeted as the future of the Irish economy. They were exactly the high-tech, high-value graduate positions we were told were the alternatives to traditionally vulnerable manufacturing jobs.

Talking to former employees of US corporations, you get a sense of the inexorable march of jobs from west to east across the globe.

"We could see it coming," says Simon Martin, who worked in Motorola in Cork until the company closed the facility last year. "We had seen our peers in Motorola sites in the United States going through it years before and we knew from travelling to our sites in Malaysia, China and India, just how uncompetitive Ireland had become."

Redundancy announcements are always met with disbelief, shock and considerable anger. But for all that, these stories are also testament to the incredible human ability to pick up the pieces and move on. And perhaps that there will always be a certain pleasure to be derived from no longer "working for the man".

SIMON MARTIN - MOTOROLA

Motorola, the world's second largest mobile phone manufacturer, established an engineering facility in Cork in 1981. In January 2007, chief executive Ed Zander announced that he planned to shed some 3,500 of the company's 70,000 employees worldwide in an effort to cut costs. In March 2007, the axe fell on its Cork plant with the loss of 350 jobs.

Simon Martin, a 37-year-old quality manager, worked with Digital in Scotland and 3Com before joining Motorola in Cork in 1998.

"It was a good place to work. It had its moments, stress-wise, but it's not like I was happy to see the back of the job or anything." The closure announcement wasn't entirely unexpected. "We knew for at least several months beforehand. I think there weren't too many people who were surprised, but for all that it's expected, it's still a shock. The word goes out that a VP is coming in from America to address the workers and that's it."

He believes that the company handled the closure relatively well. "I think a lot of effort went in to ensuring that people who could help were lined up to support the employees. A team was set up to look for opportunities for people and there were outplacement services available. They also held a jobs fair inside the Motorola building - a good number of top employers came in to that."

The extent of the financial impact, he says, depended on how long the employee was with the company. "For single-wage earners who are heavily committed financially, it can be difficult. They need to get a job quick, within weeks. For people who were there a long time and got a good redundancy package, they could afford to take some time out."

In his own case, the redundancy allowed him to give expression to a long-held ambition to start his own business. "I had been sort of playing with the 'what-ifs' for years. What if Motorola closed the plant, what if I tried something different? When things started to look less than promising, I started to really think about whether I wanted to get another job or do something different. I'd had a fair bit of experience of US corporations, having worked for them for 16 years, and I thought the time was right to try working for myself."

Martin established a business called Home Helptech, a technical support facility for home PC users. "It's been challenging but also great fun. I knew that technically it would be no problem, but it's all the other stuff that poses a challenge - dealing with accountants, advertising, banks, handling credit cards."

Was he under pressure to start earning straight away after the redundancy? "Of course, yeah. It's a tough time, but you work through it. Business is good now. It's less stressful but I find I am working longer hours now. But you're more in control of your destiny. It's nice to set your own priorities and live and die by that."

The impact of redundancy very much depends on the person, according to Martin. "There are people who are devastated and there are people who take it as a positive and you have everything in between. Some people move on to a new phase very quickly. Some people struggle. There were hundreds of people let go from Motorola, and I would say that while a lot of people got other work, some didn't. I'd imagine there are people in jobs that are not the same calibre as what they had. It's very hard to replace an employer like Motorola."

CATHERINE TOBIN - WATERFORD CRYSTAL

On May 4th, 2005, Waterford Crystal convened a meeting at Lawlors Hotel in Dungarvan and told 375 workers that the plant in the town was to close. The company said the decision was necessary to ensure "the future of crystal manufacture in Waterford". But in November 2007, it announced a further 490 job cuts at the primary manufacturing facility at Kilbarry in Waterford. When these new redundancies are implemented the company, once one of the largest employers in the State, will employ just 500 people here.

One of those workers at the meeting in Lawlors Hotel that day was Catherine Tobin, who joined the company in 1988. "I was there nearly 18 years and worked in quality in the packing room," she says. "We'd be better off if we could complain about the place now that it's gone, but honestly it was a great place to work. There was a great atmosphere in the Dungarvan plant."

At the time of the closure, the workers claimed the Dungarvan plant was more efficient and more profitable than Kilbarry (though management refused to confirm this). "It appeared to the workforce that the decision was based on political expediency rather than any strong business case."

Was the announcement expected? "No, not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the company had given assurances that they were committed to an investment to rebuild the tank furnace. In the days leading up to the announcement, plans for the rebuild were at an advanced stage. It caused a deep sense of anger and betrayal among workers, some of whom had given more than 35 years of their lives to the company. It had been the mainstay of employment in Dungarvan and the loss of so many high-end jobs was devastating."

Married with two children, Tobin decided to avail of a Fás business course which was offered to workers in the company. "The likes of Fás, VEC, WIT and Social Welfare came to the plant to give information on education courses and jobs. I think many people were confused with the bulk of information, but took up the opportunities of courses, not knowing what else to do. It was daunting getting back to class and study. I'd say that the first month or two went over my head, but looking back on it I think it was a good idea."

Now working part-time with a local firm of solicitors, Tobin is also undertaking a two-year VTOS Business Administration course with the Adult Education Centre in Dungarvan. You get the sense talking to her that while she's moving on, there's a part of her that is still deeply upset by the factory closure. No redundancy package she says can ever make up for the loss of a weekly wage.

"A lot of the people I would meet from the plant will tell you that they miss having the money in their pockets. The redundancy is grand initially because it takes the pressure off but you go through it. You spend it."

Most people at the Dungarvan plant, she says, thought they had a job for life. "The speed at which the plant finally closed caused a lot of anger. The announcement was made in May and the plant shut down in October. It all happened so quickly in the end; there was a huge sense of loss and isolation. Working in Dungarvan was like being part of a small community where you knew everyone, so there's that loss of companionship. You end up back at the stage you were at when you left school, wondering what to do now. Some people saw it as an opportunity, but I think the majority were just really devastated."

GARY MCLAUGHLIN - FRUIT OF THE LOOM

Fruit of the Loom was established in Ireland in 1987 and employed more than 3,000 people in Donegal and Derry in its heyday. In the late 1990s, the company started to relocate manufacturing jobs to Morocco, citing falling prices in the European clothes market and wage increases in Ireland. The final T-shirt was cut at its Ballymacarry plant in Buncrana in May 2006.

Gary McLaughlin started working for Fruit of the Loom in 1991 and spent nearly 15 years with the company, being made redundant in January 2006.

"It was considered a good job to have, one of the better ones," he says. "It was like being in a community within a community. You had a great relationship with the people you worked with and made good friends. I worked as a pad operator in the dye house for most of the time. It wasn't heavy work but the shifts were difficult. We did three different shifts, including a night shift which was tough - sleep becomes an issue. Obviously there is a financial benefit to shift work, but it's tough on family life. On the 4pm to midnight stint I would be heading off to work just as the kids were coming home from school."

The closure of Fruit of the Loom was a drawn-out affair, but with each phase of job cuts, remaining workers got assurances from the company that their jobs were safe. "There were rumours all the time that the plant was in trouble and it was going to shut down, but you were just happy to still have your job. The rumours rang true in the end. People were really shocked and dismayed. They didn't believe it would really come about."

McLaughlin believes the redundancy packages offered were fair.

"By and large, they settled things amicably. The redundancy helped people pay down their mortgages or settle debts. That bit of financial security is really important. It buys you some time. I was asking questions that I had never asked of myself before - what's next, is there a job out there for me? In the end I decided to pursue a wee venture of my own. I spotted a niche in the market and for nine months after I left I was selling shoes, but it didn't work out for me."

"The jobs aren't exactly thick on the ground here, but people are resilient and I don't think they are afraid to try new things. Most people are back in employment but mainly they filtered in to small businesses or tried to further themselves in education or training."

In May of last year, McLaughlin joined a local cabinet maker, Andoras Ltd.

"There's no shift work involved in the new job which is a whole new experience for me. I'm not tied to the clock the way I was. I'm taking things as they come, enjoying life and watching my family grow."

Oddly, most of the anger felt by the workers seems to be directed not at the company that let them go, but at the Government.

"The Inishowen peninsula has been completely overlooked. I think all the talk by politicians about task forces and the like was for the TV cameras, and when the dust settles the people were just left to do their own thing. We need more employment in Donegal and for the Government to come in and give a boost to this area. It would be a shame if our own children were in the same boat as us."

OUTPLACEMENT

In an age where social responsibility is the new corporate gospel, companies are increasingly offering outplacement or transition services to outgoing employees as part of, or in addition to, a redundancy package.

"Outplacement is a service to support people who have lost their job and help them transition to new employment," says Paul Mullan, director of career services company Measurability. "It's about helping them to cope with the event first and foremost. Then we look at providing career direction and helping people to secure a new job by showing them how to market themselves."

Outplacement services are often dismissed as a PR stunt that allows companies to axe jobs while showing a caring face to the world - do these corporations really care what happens to employees once they leave?

"I think some do care and others want to be seen to care. Ultimately it doesn't matter what the motive is - this is a good service for employees. My advice would be to take it if it is offered."

Mullan believes that for many people, outplacement services are often an employee's first encounter with professional career guidance. "Most people just amble along from one job to another and there are lots of people out there in jobs that they are just not suited to. I've dealt with sales people who hate selling and accountants who don't like dealing with numbers."

He advises those who have lost their job to think carefully about their options and to try not to get despondent. "Ten or 15 years ago, redundancy would have been a major thing, but these days it's all part of the working environment. It's common for people to have 12 or 14 jobs in their careers - a lot of that moving around will be as a result of redundancy. How the person responds to it is what dictates the outcome."