Laid-off workers offer package deal online
By Charles Sheehan
CLEARFIELD, Pa. When the 360 employees at FCI Electronics learned their plant would be closing in October, they didn't apply for new jobs they applied for a new company.
The workers are promoting themselves online and in trade magazines as a made-to-order work force in a last-ditch effort to remain neighbors in their small central Pennsylvania town.
"A lot of us have grown up here, we walk to work and our kids go to school here," said Jim Afton, a 37-year-old staff engineer who has worked for FCI since 1987. "We decided instead of disbanding and going our separate ways, we wanted to do something different."
The idea of sticking together came this spring, when FCI a maker of components for the telecommunications and computer industry announced it will close the plant. The company once employed 750 people.
Initially, workers thought about collecting resumes and sending them out in heaps to potential employers. Then, Betsy Savel, an operator on the assembly line, suggested a Web site touting the engineers, tool makers and line workers as a single work force in search of an employer.
The Web site, paid for in part with profits from vending machines at the plant, went up earlier this month. So far, there have been no takers, and workers are preparing for the worst, beginning to look elsewhere.
But they are hoping they don't have to leave, hoping that someone who sees their online offer or quarter-page ads in trade magazines will realize what they offer.
Sonnie Gearhart, 47, is a tool maker who grew up in Clearfield and walks four blocks to the plant every day. He believes the 26 engineers, 74 tool and die makers, 16 managers, 208 assembly line workers and the 30 workers in shipping, computer support and other support jobs would be an asset to any interested company. "We've had a perfect attendance average of eight years ... most employees have never missed a day," Gearhart said.
In Clearfield, a town of 6,631 people about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the local economy has struggled in recent years. Its coal mines have closed. So have the brickyards that once manufactured firebricks for steel mills. A textile industry that thrived decades ago has shriveled to almost nothing.
Now, workers read news about plant closings as they would an obituary page.
The telecommunications industry had a banner year in 2000 but then slumped badly, and Paris-based FCI began laying off workers.
At the Clearfield plant, which has been in operation since 1966 under three owners, word came in April that the remaining employees would be laid off. They were not offered jobs at FCI's two other Pennsylvania plants because future demand appears weak, the company said.
Workers at FCI are out of places to work in the region even retail jobs have been hurt with the closing of local Ames and Kmart stores, said Don McClincy, executive director of the Clearfield Foundation, a nonprofit group that fosters economic development.
"This community has been smacked a few times smacked by the clay industry, smacked by the coal industry, smacked by the textile industry," McClincy said. "They (the workers) have stuck together during adversity in the past and you are seeing people of character at work here."
The employees believe another company may recognize an opportunity in Clearfield, and on their www.clearfieldworks.com site they boast of hundreds of years of experience in tool fabrication, plastic injection molding, metal stamping and engineering.
Whether their efforts are likely to attract a new company depends on many factors, experts said.
"It's a really slim shot," said Brad Watts, an analyst for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich. "It being a smaller group like that, it probably gives it a better chance. I guess it's really dependent on the skill makeup of the work force and what they're willing to take if another company calls them."