by Cynthia Dailey-Hewkin
Preface, by Al Siebert:
Researchers who study natural disasters find that emergency workers (fire, police, medical, and service personnel) in a community endure the emotionally traumatic stresses better than others in their community. These findings suggest that if you are in a workgroup hit by a crisis, the best way to enhance your resiliency and avoid becoming mired in the group’s victim feelings is to find ways to make yourself useful to others.
In January, 1993, the 1500 employees at the Trojan Nuclear Plant in Rainier, Oregon, read in the Sunday newspaper that the facility was being shut down. At work the next week, they were told about the layoff phases in which they would all lose their jobs in the months ahead. Many people were angry. Many lived in the community, had mortgage payments, went to the local churches, their children were in school together, played in Little League sports. The impact of so many families leaving the small Rainier community would be devastating. The stress level was extremely high at work and in the community.
Portland General Electric, the parent company, hired me to conduct sessions for employees about ways that life’s best survivors cope with life-disrupting adversity. Everyone received a copy of a 1980 article I’d written about "The Survivor Personality" and a booklet I wrote on "Thriving During Downsizing and Layoffs."
In late 2000, over seven years since then, I received the following e-mail from Cynthia Dailey-Hewkin, a woman who was in one of my sessions at the Trojan plant. Her story validates what can happen when a person does not react like a victim during a major corporate layoff and chooses, instead, to find ways to be helpful to others.
In January, 1993 when I, like the other 1500 employees, received a letter notifying me that we were going to be laid off from the Trojan Nuclear Plant, I thought, "What can I do to help?"
The plant closure came at a particularly difficult time in my life. Not only was I losing my job, but my mother was dying of a brain tumor. I was also going through a divorce after having been married 28 years. I had just moved out of a 3,000 sq. ft. house which was in a rural setting near a lovely, peaceful wooded area into a quadraplex which housed mostly low income people who fought with each other and had crying babies.
In my office area, where I worked as a secretary many of my co-workers were beginning to anticipate future financial difficulties. I like to write, so I contacted the editor of the Trojan newsletter. I offered to write a column with money saving hints. He was most enthusiastic, and gave me my own column. It was titled "Saving with Cynthia." Kind of corny, but it had a nice big heading!
I did tons of research (which took my mind off losing my job) to put the column together, and wrote about everything from how to save money on car insurance to making pantyhose last longer! People were most appreciative!
As the layoffs progressed, I attended every workshop and presentation the company arranged. PGE did a wonderful job of providing employees with many helpful resources. I found I had great interest in helping people look for work. One woman who had been a purchasing agent for 18.5 years for Trojan panicked when she learned the plant was going down. She said "I don’t know how to do anything! How am I going to find a job?" even though she was one of the most highly paid people in the Purchasing Department. I worked with her on identifying her transferable skills. These included good people skills, good negotiating skills, good budgeting skills, good math skills, that type of thing. After awhile she calmed down, (and she eventually succeeded in finding a new job that used her many skills.)
I spent a couple of months applying for jobs at PGE as well as at one or two other businesses. It had been rather scary. We were always competing against our co-workers for every job opening that was announced at the company. Interviews were often held at the plant, and sometimes there would be lines of people applying for the same job.
One morning I received a call from Human Resources at PGE telling me that one of the departments would like to make me a job offer. To my surprise, I was among a group of 30 people who were the first ones rehired by the company to work in another division of PGE. I worked my last day at the Trojan Plant on March 31, 1993 and started my new job in downtown Portland on April 1, 1993. All my benefits remained in place and transferred over to my new position.
My new job at PGE was working in the World Trade Center in downtown Portland (a place I had dreamed about being for a couple of years previously). My office overlooked the Willamette River and I had great co-workers. I was earning more money than I had been at Trojan, so things worked out better than I could ever have imagined.
A few months later, I married for a second time and then moved with my husband to Pendleton, Oregon, when he was offered a good job in his field. During a pre-move trip to Pendleton to look for a place to live, I went to the local community college to check out the classes they offered. During a conversation with a counselor I learned there was a job opening at the college. I felt I was qualified so applied for the position. I was interviewed for a staff position working with one of the deans. I had never done this kind of work before, but they felt that I had enough related experience. I was hired for the job before I moved.
After getting settled in, I started working half days. The dean and I, along with a technical advisor, began developing a new associate degree program. After a few weeks, the dean asked me to work full-time so that I could also be his personal secretary. It was one of the most exciting jobs I have ever had and opened the door to the work I am now doing.
A year later, my partner and I moved to Grants Pass, Oregon, when he was offered a higher level position. I soon found part-time work in Grants Pass as a community coordinator in an alcohol/drug treatment agency. My writing experience motivated me to start a newsletter that featured inspirational stories of recovery and success. Doing everything — interviewing, writing, editing, printing, and distributing the newsletter — was very satisfying when people told me how much it helped them.
I later became a crew leader with welfare recipients. I taught them how to apply for, get hired, and keep jobs so they could get off welfare. This was quite a feat since some of them had been on welfare 23 years!When my husband and I were divorced, I needed a full-time job to support myself. An unexpected aspect of my informal coaching of people at Trojan was that I found that I enjoyed and was good at employment counseling. I applied for a position in that field at the local community college and today I am working in that very area! I oversee student employment at the college and assist the general public who are looking for work and need assistance with the methods they are using.
I will soon start teaching a community education class at the college. Being in an educational environment has been such a positive experience for me, I want to share some of what I have learned along the road of life.
My advice for anyone having to cope with a huge company layoff:
Don’t get caught up in the negativity of the situation. Try to find as many good things about it as possible. I felt I was a lot better off in my job search than the nuclear engineers. Most of them would have to move if they wanted to continue working in their fields.
Think about how you can make the most of the situation. Have you been thinking about making a career change anyhow? Maybe you have been thinking about going back to school. This may be the right time. A lot of dislocated workers go back to school and enjoy the experience. They learn all kinds of new opportunities are available for them and they may decide to try something they have put off but always wanted to do.
Take advantage of the resources your company may offer. Attend as many workshops and seminars as you can. Talk to representatives of the different schools in your area. Keep an open mind about new career directions.
Be cautious in a job loss/transition situation. This may not be the best time to make big decisions such as getting married or moving. Emotions are often on overload. In an effort to try to gain some sense of control there may be a tendency to choose the wrong partner or get caught up in the excitement of the possibility of living in a different place.
A final piece of advice: take care of yourself while you are taking care of others. I knew I needed some physical exercise to deal with the mental and emotional stress of my situation so I started running. It was only half a block at first, and I thought I was going to die! Each week I added a little distance, and eventually I became able to run about 3-1/2 miles on a regular basis. An unexpected side benefit was that answers to problems I was trying to work out would suddenly appear to me by the end of the run. (About a year ago I did a 10 mile run — something before Trojan I would never have dreamed possible!) Find a support group if you can. I went to an aerobic class two or three times a week. It almost felt like a social activity as I became acquainted with the other people who were attending.
I found one of the best things I did for myself was to walk along the banks of the Columbia River next to the Trojan Plant. I let my mind drift and flow with the river. It seemed to nurture my soul.
My experience at Trojan is something I will never forget. It helped open the doors for me to a whole new world.
Update: Cynthia, whose personal experience led to a mid-life career change, has retired from Portland Community College (PCC) where she worked with the Workforce Investment Act as a Career Specialist guiding people through the job search process. Since retiring Cynthia has volunteered for PCC’s Life by Design NW program as author of the "Resilient Recareering" column for their website. She currently volunteers as a job club facilitator in Columbia County. She is also a Certified Resiliency Facilitator.