Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Let me tell you what I've done. (part 5)

In Part 1 I covered my work history from my High School days until I got a job offer at Specialty Records in the Spring of 1992.

In Part 2 I covered my time at Specialty Records from my hiring through my years as a Statistical Process Control Coordinator.

In Part 3 I covered the transitional period from the CD / DVD split in 1995 to my acceptance of the role of DVD Asset Manager in 1998.

In Part 4 I detailed my years as the DVD Asset Manager, from 1999 to 2007. But all good things must come to an end...

On February 27, 2007, a bomb went off at my place of employment, killing over 300 people, leaving hundreds more wounded. Nothing there would ever be the same. Survivors tried to pick up the pieces and go on.

No. That's not what happened.

February 27, 2007 was a Tuesday. On Tuesday mornings it had become my routine to drive my aunt from her house a block away from mine to her son's house a few miles from where I worked. It was a brief detour, and since I stayed until 6:30 or 7:00 each evening to service the end-of-day needs of any of our West Coast clients, it was OK that on Tuesdays I would usually stroll in to work around 9:15 or 9:30.

I dropped her off and followed the usual series of roads and highways to get to work. Looked at the wind turbines in the distance as I pulled up to the plant. Noticed a car parked in the entrance of the parking lot, somewhat askew, lights flashing. Is he OK? Is he broken down? Does he need help? I thought. As I got closer I saw it was one of our security vehicles. That's odd, I thought. I wonder why he's parked like that?

I parked and walked through the parking lot. I had some home-made chicken soup in my lunch bag. I wasn't feeling sick, not yet, but I could feel it coming on.

I made my usual cheerful exchange of pleasantries with the guards at the entrance. If there was anything unusual there, I didn't notice it.

I badged myself through the two doors that led to our secured area. Something did feel odd up there. The air felt wrong, somehow. Numb. Dead.

I stopped at the Operations Manager's office on the way to mine. "What the heck's up with the security car parked out front?" I asked.

I don't remember his exact words. But I think he told me that there was another Reduction In Force going on.

"Oh," I said. I walked down the hall, put my lunch in the refrigerator, sat down at my desk, fired up the computer. Checked my phone for messages. Checked my email inbox. Took care of a few things, then set to work on my latest project of combining, compacting, and indexing all of the finished project materials in the finished project boxes to make room for additional projects in our Asset Library, and boxing up all client-owned assets for eventual return.

After a few minutes I was told that our area manager wanted to see me in the conference room.

And that was that.

It wasn't just me. It was about one-third of our department, plus over three hundred people from elsewhere in our company. Those from our department went to a local bar and spent the rest of the day there. We were eventually joined by a few of our co-workers, including one who did me the favor of bringing out my lunch. I wasn't about to let some home-made chicken soup go to waste.

What happened next was detailed on this blog, mostly. I started out my job hunt trying to be cheerful and optimistic. Then I tried to be determined and realistic. In the end I settled on desperate.

I wasn't on my own. I had a big support group. Mark Cour from Wilkes-Barre Online offered advice and suggestions and a job lead. Francesco Marciuliano, the writer of Sally Forth, who had just had Sally's wife Ted lose his job, offered moral support. Uncle Lumpy, a frequent commenter and occasional fill-in blogger at The Comics Curmudgeon, provided me with advice, guidance, direction, and professional services free of charge - he's in the business of getting people hired. I also had a support group made of friends who had lost their jobs with me, as well as dozens of friends from all over who gave whatever help and support they could.

The company didn't leave us swinging. We had a generous severance package and were at the same time eligible for unemployment, though that message was somehow garbled in communication to us. They provided us with a job-hunting seminar, which gave advice that directly contradicted statements given in similar classes offered by the state. (One course's "always" items became another course's "never" items, and vice-versa.) We searched and hunted and called and poked and prodded. I rewrote my resumé a dozen times. I scoured job listings and signed up with and and got hit with hundreds of job-spam announcements and very few solid leads. I spent hours researching dozens of companies in Northeastern Pennsylvania and beyond. I cold-called and sent aggressive letters of introduction. I filled out and filed online applications and paper applications.

And in the end, when the call came through from my former employer that they were offering me a new job, I jumped at the chance. It was the only solid lead I had, after all. Everything else up to that point had essentially been a series of exercises to keep me sane.

The job was nothing spectacular. It barely required a High School diploma. Operating a DVD Press, popping out discs all day. Several presses. Maintaining them, and all their related processes. Changing out DVD Stampers. Running QC tests. The pay was two-thirds of what I had been making. Was I interested?

I said yes.

I started in August of 2007, nearly six months after I had lost my job as Asset Manager. I received several weeks of training from an excellent, skilled, experienced operator. I screwed up, sometimes quite badly. I can do things that are incredibly complex and sophisticated, or I can be happy shoveling stones or digging gardens or mixing concrete all day. Ask me to do something somewhere in-between, and my competence and confidence levels plummet. I was a slow learner. I earned a few scars and burns along the way. But I learned.

In January of 2008 I was tapped to do a "special project": statistical monitoring and analysis of all DVD processes - and of our new product lines, HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. I would still technically be a DVD Molding Operator, but I wouldn't be running around four DVD presses all day, trying to convince them to keep running.

Once again I walked into a position whose broad outlines had already been laid out. I was taking over the duties of two management-level employees who would be returning to full-time management positions. I would be generating and assembling complex reports that individually took each of them several hours to run - and I would have less time to do both of them than either of them had to do one. In addition I would be doing any number of special projects for managers and engineers in the DVD, HD, and Blu-Ray areas.

I looked at what I was being handed. It was complex, but I saw ways to streamline it. Some of the reports were just....ugly. Charts and graphs that would give Edward Tufte an attack of apoplexy.

So I did my thing: analyze and synthesize, take it apart, see how it works, put it back together again so it works faster, better, more efficiently.

And I did. Reports that had been taking two to four hours to assemble and generated a ream of printed-out intermediate reports along the way, I streamlined down to fifteen to thirty minutes with all material stored electronically - no printouts required. Graphs that resembled random seismograph readings from all over the world superimposed on each other I reduced to their simplest, most effective forms, communicating information, communicating cold, beautiful truth.

Some of that information scared the hell out of me.

New projects popped up and were dealt with. New duties and responsibilities came my way.

At times I had hopes that the position might in time transform from a "special project" for a DVD Molding Operator to something more permanent, and salaried. Something like the job I had lost. But the data I was seeing suggested that the future would unfold differently.

That "special project" lasted through the end of November.

I started back in DVD Molding in December. Rolling layoffs, which had been going on for weeks prior to my return, have meant that I have been laid off nearly half the time since then.

Then the call came through last Tuesday, on my second of four days of being off-shift. There had been another Reduction In Force, nearly two hundred people this time. I was safe - as, it turned out, were my former co-workers in my old department. But I was getting bumped to night shift. And would not be starting on the new shift until March 16.

Which brings us to now. Still several days until I start back to work running a DVD Press again, working night shift, 6 PM to 6 AM.

It could be worse. On an hourly basis, this job still pays better - when I'm working - than any other job I know of in this area.

The job outlook for this area now is bleaker than it was two years ago. The job outlook for the rest of the country now is about as bleak as it was for this area two years ago.

I am in a dying industry. Piracy is killing it. Legalized alternatives to our product are killing it. Why buy a DVD when you can download the movie illegally for free, or where you can order it legally over the box next to your TV? Anyone who has ever been trained in video compression or QC can tell you why not: the image you get over a download, illegal or legal, is crap. Something we would never, never, never have dreamed of giving to a client as an approved compression. Something no client would ever have accepted. To us, to me, it's literally unwatchable. The number of visual defects displayed each minute rapidly overwhelms my ability to enjoy the movie. Whenever I see such a movie (the legally downloaded kind, of course) I complain about this, loudly and at length, and then usually wander off and find something to read while my friends continue to enjoy the movie they Tivoed earlier.

(Ironically, I had argued for many years that my old department would probably be the last man standing in our company. After people stopped buying shiny round discs, they would still want - need - digital downloads of movies. And as it was our business to convert movies to digital format, it didn't really matter to us if the movies were being put on disc or being uploaded to a server to be purchased online. This may still turn out to be the case.)

Loss of consumer discretionary income is killing us. But it's killing every other consumer manufacturing industry, as you may have noticed.

If you are currently earning a paycheck, count yourself lucky. And, at the risk of incurring the ire of Paul Krugman, save your earnings. Or spend them, if you want to see the economy recover. That's what I used to do, back when I had money to spend.

I am still looking. At times I feel like I am just gazing into the abyss.

I am tied to this area. I own a house here, for the time being. I watch over my elderly mother here. I will not dump either of them because they represent an inconvenience. I will not - cannot - pack up a duffel bag and seek my fortune elsewhere.

The world is changing. Recovery, salvation, will come from identifying where those changes will catalyze growth, where they will start to reverse the collapse, and then pumping energy into those seed crystals and letting them do their thing. I have defined three industries that I see as having the potential for being these seed crystals, and I am lobbying politicians and the general public to act to bring these industries to this area.

Will this work? I have no idea.

What is the alternative?


Todd HellsKitchen said...

I love your ongoing tale and the way you recap with links to start is brilliant.

hedera said...

I wish I had something useful, or even comforting, to say to you. It just seems as though analytical skills like yours should be useful to someone, and not necessarily someone local - everything is remote these days anyway. Try to think of some way to market yourself as a consultant, working over the Internet?

My thoughts are with you.

And am I ever glad that I'm out of the game, and retired. Especially since, before I retired, I worked for one of Those Banks.