Letters to the editor

Manufacturing's past meltdowns don't offer hope for the future I read Bob Vavra's July 2005 Comment with first dismay and then repulsion. I was part of the last great U.S. automotive attrition movement. Describing the difference between sustaining a multi-decade long career and finding oneself suddenly unemployed, eventually finding another lesser job and starting over as "splitting hairs" is v...
By Staff September 1, 2005

Manufacturing’s past meltdowns don’t offer hope for the future

I read Bob Vavra’s July 2005 Comment with first dismay and then repulsion. I was part of the last great U.S. automotive attrition movement. Describing the difference between sustaining a multi-decade long career and finding oneself suddenly unemployed, eventually finding another lesser job and starting over as “splitting hairs” is very disingenuous.

My family and those of colleagues endured great upheaval and uncertainty. Most experienced significant economic, professional and personal losses. In the months leading to the company’s decision to shed significant numbers of employees, along with the nervous tension of seeing yet another industry meltdown we were treated to an unending college hazing/ boot camp mentality to “weed out the weak.”

Each day we had to decide if the accrued benefits and possibility of surviving another RIF were enough to accept the 11 to 14 hours of abuse we faced. When the official announcement of job cuts came we were left to speculate, who would stay, who would be encouraged or forced to leave and who would go. Several weeks passed while those “hard decisions” were made for us. A gallows mentality prevailed as our fate was totally out of our hands.

Some, like me were lucky according to your logic. I was offered a transfer. While my wife’s stable job remained in St. Louis I could move to the mid East Coast, or Ontario for a 3-to-7 month temporary assignment. In so doing, the company avoided the advertised severance package for those of us too young to retire and whose jobs were eliminated. In the end I took a local job. It had a 20% pay cut, and less than

The retirees were not a lot better off. While many folks plan to retire early and others lust to do so, few rational people suddenly decide in July to retire in December at age 50-to-52, thus reducing their retirement by over 50%. Of course, when faced with the alternative of losing it all or relocating and becoming the new hire at another location, I guess it becomes a good decision. Remember as salaried folk, seniority isn’t a factor unless there are no other factors, and then (rightfully) most organizations count your time in present location over total company time.

No, the headlines got it right. “GM to Slash 25,000 jobs” — that’s the reality. I have nothing but sympathy for those soon-to-be-former GM workers. Choosing downsizing is so much easier for management than strategically fixing a car line that is retro-70s without meaning to be. Only the American car makers consistently insist that every compact and non-luxury family car they build is unprofitable and then blame their cost problems on the very creative innovative minds that net them billions in good years.

It’s funny the successful car makers are doing what Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca, Don Peterson and others did in the past. They concentrate on the car. Each one is targeted for a group of potential customers and meets that customer’s expectations for price, style, fit, function, durability and operating cost. Every time our Big 3 remember that lesson they have found themselves constrained by capacity, not competition.

I am in the awkward position of having a high school senior leaning towards engineering. I waver between screaming at him to run, don’t walk away, pick a career where you can make a decent living and have a life, or encouraging him to follow his instincts and hone his skills and become a 21st Century engineer.

In articles like yours, I keep hearing of the shortage of skilled workers and emerging manufacturing. Except businesses with addresses like Brazil, Mexico, India or China, I frankly don’t believe you. A friend who runs a small local manufacturing concern even related the story of a customers insisting that his product be made in China, assuring that it’s not overpriced.

Like the old commercial, “Where’s the beef?” Where are these jobs? What skills should my son and his classmates learn to fit those jobs? What can they do to prevent the mid-career and end-of-career bust that my generation faces? I dare you to honestly answer these questions. If you can, then your editorial position is valid. If not, I’m back to repulsed.

D. Sager

St. Louis

Bob Vavra responds: The next story reinforces what every plant manager and industry leader I talk to tells me — the looming skilled worker shortage is real, and the executives aren’t sure who will step up to fill those positions when the current workforce retires. Perhaps some of them will come from people such as Mr. Sager’s son. Perhaps many displaced workers — even at age 50 — will find a renewed demand for their skills in new industries. If we champion the idea that American manufacturing is important, then we can discuss not just what has happened — which has been traumatic, to be sure — but to look ahead at what’s coming next.