Dire circumstances lead to new beginnings
Sam White is 62 years old; he had worked at LyondellBasell in Texas for the past 20 years. The plant is located near the Gulf Coast in Texas. When Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008, the plant was inundated with the storm surge.
The control system and switch gear—nearly everything was damaged. “When we got back in, we assumed we’d remediate everything and resume operations,” White said. But when no decisions came through that actually funded the recovery effort, in early January, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Even though the company had made no decisions, “things were a lot grimmer,” White said. In early February, the company finally announced the plant would not be restarted. “About 75 of us were given a 60-day notice. That left 45 people to continue working to prepare the closure.”
Approaching his 63rd birthday, White had been giving some thought to his retirement plans, but he was not quite ready yet. “I had thought of retiring in about two years. But this has just pushed the calendar a little bit. So I’m having to take a hard look at retiring at this point,” he said.
This story is all too familiar to a lot of people these days. Unfortunately, some people are forced out a lot earlier than White, and some take the news much harder than others, seeing nothing but doom in their future. But White had been through this before, when his children were younger. So it was not new to him. This time, he decided he was not going to let the situation get him down. He made a plan to start a new life; and whatever it was he ended up doing, whether it was falling back on his industry experience and teaching at ISA, driving a truck, or leading tourists through trails at a National park, he was not going to let forced early retirement beat him.
Sometimes you should consider doing something different and maybe reinventing yourself, White said. “I remember reading articles about people who had made career changes. And I knew I was going to be here in the North Carolina area working with my brother, who is also my financial advisor on retirement plans. Since ISA headquarters were here, I asked them about a visit. It occurred to me ISA does have courses they offer, and the instructors are ISA members for the most part. I thought earlier in my career I might be interested in an instructing position. But I never had the push to do that,” White said.
White made an appointment to look into training to find out more about what was required.
“Right now, the biggest obstacle I see is they’re looking for someone with one year teaching adults or equivalent credentials,” he said. “I’ve had occasions in which I’ve had to present information to adults in the area of complying with the management of change procedures. When we implemented new control strategies, we had to provide training to operators to support management of change. So I’ll submit that information.”
But White did not stop there. He also thought about auto parts stores who need truck drivers to deliver parts to garages. “I’ve also sometimes wondered about National parks services. We visit the Blue Ridge Mountains periodically, and the trails are not always in great repair. I’m not limiting my choices to engineering and technical. I don’t want a menial job, but there are other things I’m interested in that could be a possibility,” he said.
White knows about job loss because he went through a similar experience in 1985 when the plant where he was working closed due to the economic situation. So having been through it before, he was a little tougher now. “At that time, my sons were in elementary school, and the pressure was on to get back into a full-time job. But now I have a good amount saved up, and I’m close to retirement. I could retire now, and not have serious issues. It’s just a whole different world at this point,” he said.
Back in 1985, finding a job “was probably a lot like now. Employers looked for a tighter fit for their requirements. When times are good, you have an 80% match, and they may be willing to compromise on their expectations. At the time I was looking, I got a few interviews but no job offers. I think a lot of it was the fact I was close on qualifications, but they were still looking around for someone who fit closer.” But White got lucky when another company site had someone leave the company and saw a fit with White.
Since he had had experience with losing a job before, White knew this time around that he would have a plan. And one important aspect to that plan is financial planning—finding out what your resources are. “That tells me how much I can relax or if I need to get out and earn $15,000,” he said. “A good assessment of a retirement plan is an important point for anyone in a similar spot.”
Keeping options open
Letting go of pride and accepting financial services is also key, White said. During his first layoff, White’s wife was working as a teacher in a private school in Baton Rouge, La.; “her salary wasn’t close to what mine was, but we had some income coming in.” Yet White still needed to draw unemployment benefits. “I guess sometimes there’s an imaginary stigma professionals see availing themselves of those benefits,” but that is what it’s there for, so White took advantage of the funds and advises anyone else in his situation to do the same.
Ellen Fussell Policastro (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes and edits Workforce Development.