Thursday, September 3, 2015
T Minus 36 and Counting
Last month I went cruising the online want ads for work. And wonder of wonders, I found something. I’m now doing freelance work from home, of a type and for a customer I’d rather not disclose for fear I’ll jinx it. The pay sucks, but when you’re not earning anything, even a little’s an upgrade. Besides, I’m hoping the experience I amass now will help me land something more lucrative down the line.
Because sooner or later, this job’s going to end, most likely abruptly and with no warning. How do I know? I don’t. I’m going by my previous experience, which hasn’t been the best.
In other words, today’s blog is going to be a vent. If that’s not your thing, bail now. For the rest of you, better buckle in, Spanky. The seas are about to get choppy.
# # #
My first full-time, non-temp office job after graduation was as a file clerk for an engineering firm. I’d done temp work for them off and on for a year or so. They always needed somebody. They were always busy. They finally hired me. I now had a steady job, a guaranteed weekly paycheck, and benefits. Hooray!
This lasted a year and a half.
What happened? Well, the engineering firm that hired me specialized in designing and building nuclear power plants. As I learned decades later, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since Three Mile Island had its meltdown in 1979. The company hired me in 1981. It was already a dead business walking, but I didn’t know that. I’m not sure anyone did, except maybe the folks at the top. Not that they would have told us, of course.
They were busy as hell when I was hired, wrapping up their existing projects. As those wound down, so did the workload. No new projects replaced them, and none were going to. Again, we in the trenches didn’t know that at the time. As the most recent hire in my department, I was the one they cut when the layoffs started. This was my first layoff. It would not be the last.
# # #
After enjoying the benefits of unemployment, I found another job at a typesetting firm. Computer typesetting was just coming into vogue, so I actually got training. It also meant a move. That’s how I wound up in Ephrata. A week after I signed my rental lease, the company announced it was relocating to a larger building in Lancaster, 25 minutes away. Well, gas was still cheap back then.
A week after I accepted this job, my old job called and asked me if I wanted to come back. I politely declined. Just as well; the engineering firm got bought out by some out-of-state power company, still couldn’t make a go of it, and eventually went out of business. Had I gone back, I would have been laid off again within a year. Instead I stuck with the new job. The typesetting firm doubled their employees when business picked up, then moved to the larger building. Then business dropped off and they cut their staff in half again. I was shown the door. That’s two layoffs in roughly two years, from two different jobs in two different industries. My negative outlook on the world of gainful employment had begun.
# # #
I was on another paper-pushing temp job at a company that manufactured farming equipment when I landed a job at one of the two magazine printing firms in the Ephrata-Akron area. The very next day, the folks at my temp job offered me a long-term position. The job with the printing firm was located closer to home and paid more. I explained that I was leaving and went on to better things.
The “better things” didn’t pan out. After a promising start, I switched departments and found myself working for the only person in the company I couldn’t get along with. I did everything I could to fix the situation, to no avail. So I stuck it out long enough to stick a year’s salary in the bank and then quit. I’d already started writing articles for a small weekly paper and I had my fiction writing, so I wasn’t worried.
Should I have accepted that other offer from the other company? Turns out, no. One of my assignments for the paper was to interview their CEO. During those three years I was at the printing firm, the bottom dropped out of the global farm machinery market. The huge workload they’d been expecting never materialized. The company was bought out at least once in that period, and had a round of layoffs. As a recent hire and a low-level support staffer, I would have been among the first to go.
# # #
The newspaper job turned out to be the second-best job I’ve ever had … while it lasted. I started out as a stringer, then became a part-time editor, then finally a full-time editor. Once again I had a weekly salary, steady work, and benefits. Not to mention the flexible hours and option to work mostly at home. My idea of heaven.
You already know where this is going, right?
When I was hired, we had a gung-ho publisher and a go-getter editor. A month later, the publisher got promoted and the editor quit. The new publisher was a bottom-line bean counter and the new editor was an idiot. Between the two of them, over the next two years they proceeded to run the paper into the ground.
This was around the mid-90s. You may recall what happened to print journalism in the mid-90s. The price of paper abruptly quadrupled. Newspapers across the country, the ones that couldn’t support themselves, either cut back or folded. Mine was among the folders, thanks to the incompetence of our fearless leaders. I don’t know what happened to the publisher, but the editor got fired. Too late to save my job, unfortunately.
Last year I was reading an article about the future of print news. It included a chart showing newspaper revenues since the 1930s. The red line climbs steadily until around 1994, when it takes a sudden sharp dip. Then it starts climbing again. That dip occurred during my premier stint at a newspaper. I have got to work on my timing.
# # #
After a few more abortive jobs and more temp work I returned to editorial—same company that had laid me off, except at a different paper. One of the guys in the paste-up department had done work for TSR, the Dungeons and Dragons company. He was still in contact with a bunch of those people, including their editors. This was my chance. TSR published a line of novels based on their games and characters. Somebody had to write those books. Why not me?
I got names from the paste-up guy and sent a query letter, including one of my published fantasy stories. They actually replied, saying they had no openings at the moment but they had projects coming up and might need some writers in the spring. No prob. I could wait.
Two things happened before spring rolled around. One, I quit the newspaper job over a pay dispute. Two, TSR went bankrupt. The company that led the gaming industry for 20 years, that made D&D a household word, hit a financial speed bump right about the time I contacted them. They got bought out by a rival gaming company. All the contacts my contact knew were fired. I found a back door into the company and they not only bricked it up, they blew up the building. Did I offend some god somewhere or something?
# # #
Leaving the paper turned out to be a blessing. I landed a home typing job at the other printing firm in my neighborhood. At the time I lived about two blocks away. I could walk up the street, pick up my work, type at home in my underwear with the stereo blasting, and pretty much set my own hours without having to worry about idiot co-workers and micromanaging bosses. The typing job paid more than I’d been earning as an editor. That’s pretty pathetic when you think about it.
During our training period one of the managers took us on the company tour. Up to this point, no job I’d ever had, regardless of position, company or industry, had lasted more than 3-4 years. Three was my average. For every job I’d quit, two had laid me off. This was my experience when the manager warned us that the nature of the job we’d just been hired for was changing. More articles were coming in on disk. “This job’s going to change over the next five to ten years,” he announced.
And I thought: “It doesn’t matter. One way or another, I won’t be here that long.”
I was right. A year to the day after I was hired, the other printing firm, the one I used to work for, bought us out. They used a different software program. Overnight our training and experience became worthless. Our work was given to their typists. Management assured us we’d be retrained, once the consolidation process was done.
Management didn’t tell us they were building a new facility overseas. They saved that little tidbit until right before Thanksgiving, after letting us dangle all summer, wondering what would happen to our jobs. Here’s what happened: they were being sent to India. The entire home typing department was being shut down.
Two weeks after the meeting, I got my layoff notice in the mail. I didn’t even last the five years promised by the guy during the tour. On what would have been my three-year anniversary, I was once again looking for work.
# # #
My last full-time office job echoed my first. I was back at the printing firm, this time as an editorial assistant/copy editor. They were busy as hell when I started. “This department’s going places,” the manager told me.
A month after I started, work suddenly slammed to a halt. Nothing was coming in. Management blamed a glitch in the computer system. It picked up again after a couple weeks, but I started to notice things. The annual raises were postponed from April to July. People who left weren’t replaced. Changes were made to streamline the production system, which eliminated at least one job. And the workload had started to drop.
I was not at all surprised when management called a company-wide meeting for all employees. “You’re a great bunch of workers,” they kicked off the speech. “We’re proud to have you working for us. However, with costs and the global economy, blah blah blah … ”
Upshot: Our biggest client had decided to have all editorial work done in India. Instead of scouring for new customers, those in charge had tried to squeeze more work out of customers who already had one foot out the door. I have no proof, but I suspect that abrupt slowdown around the time I started was them doing a test run of the system that would funnel our work to India. The subsequent months were used to work out the bugs. Layoffs were announced, to begin the following month.
I didn’t even get that long. One of the regulars had gone out for maternity leave two months before. She was supposed to be gone until September. She returned unexpectedly in August. I showed up for work one morning and there she was at her desk. By lunchtime I was once more out of a job. I'd been working there less than a year.
The company limped along with a skeleton crew for another two years before it finally went belly-up for good. The type of jobs that brought me to Lancaster County to begin with no longer exist in this area. Maybe not even in this country. Commuting to India isn't an option. The pay's not that great anyway.
# # #
This pattern even applies to jobs I don’t take. Some time back I saw a want ad for an adult bookstore on Rt. 272 outside of Shillington. I thought about applying, just so I could see the looks on the faces of people when I told them what I did for a living. In the end I didn’t. Just as well. About a year after the ad appeared, PennDOT decided to widen that stretch of 272 from a two-lane to a four-lane. Almost every business along the road was bought out through eminent domain and razed, including the adult bookstore. Had I gotten the job, it would have ended within two years, tops. Last I heard, the owners were still trying to find somebody to rent a building to them, without success.
# # #
I’m posting this now to mark the date. Now that I’ve started my latest endeavor, that means the company's doomed. Sometime within the next three years they’re going to go out of business. I have no idea what their financial situation is at the moment. Doesn’t matter. I work for them now. The clock is ticking.
On my end, I intend to keep looking for freelance work and build myself a client list, so if one goes down I’ll have backup. I’ll also be writing. It’d be nice if I sold a book that did well so I wouldn’t have to rely on employers. Provided the publisher doesn’t go out of business. Oy vey.