Former workers share job hunt stories

Published 9:59 am Friday, October 22, 2010

Former International Paper employee Jimmy Fowler of Franklin looks over a roof during a home inspection. After losing his job at the Franklin paper mill, Fowler went to school to become a home inspector and started his own business.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a three-part series marking one year since International Paper announced it would close its Franklin mill, eliminating 1,100 jobs. Today’s article features former IP employees who have found new jobs. On Sunday, look for a question-and-answer piece with area governmental and economic development leaders.

FRANKLIN—Jim Yarborough has gotten better about staying in touch with his mom in Akron, Ohio.

The former product performance manager for International Paper in Franklin, Yarborough calls her daily during his 50-mile, evening commute from Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where he found a job after the local paper mill announced one year ago today it would close.

“When I first started calling her at 5:10, it would take five or six rings (for her to answer). Now it takes two,” said Yarborough, who has remained in Franklin while working for KapStone Paper and Packaging Corp.

Of the 1,100 who lost jobs at IP, a minimum of 375 have started or accepted new jobs, according to an unofficial survey by Randy Betz, vice president of workforce development at Paul D. Camp Community College.

“This is a minimum number, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the number was well over 400 by now,” Betz said. “Over 57 industries, businesses, government agencies and non-profit organizations have been able to tap into the wonderful talent pool that Union Camp and International Paper developed over time.”

A former IP employee who spent 11 years at the mill, Betz believes his survey is becoming quickly outdated.

“I don’t see many of my former mill colleagues at the Workforce Center’s One Stop Job Center now,” he said. “I see some of them on the road during commuting times, and I know I have not counted them in the survey.”

Betz also noted there is less demand for re-employment workshops such as resume writing, and interview and basic computer skills.

In an attempt to talk to former IP workers without jobs, The Tidewater News found two after making about 20 calls. Both did not want to be interviewed. Finding former IP workers with new jobs wasn’t as difficult.

Former IP worker Danny McGuire drives six times the distance to work now and makes 30 percent less money. But the 42-year-old Franklin man no longer works midnight shifts and has weekends and holidays off.

“I worked at the mill for over 20 years and got off Christmas three times,” said McGuire, who got a job with Northrop Grumman shipyard in Newport News.

He applied in December for a crane operator’s position during a job fair at PDCCC.

“I talked to the lady there and they offered me the job,” McGuire said. “I was lucky.”

He considers the pay good, although he’s spending a lot more for gas now that he’s driving 54 miles one way to get to work.

Jimmy Fowler considered retirement, but wasn’t ready after losing his job of 33 years as an IP millwright.

“When the mill closed, it was actually a big loss,” the 61-year-old Franklin man said. “I had no idea what I would do next.”

Then opportunity knocked.

That is Opportunity Inc., a federally funded program that provides money for retraining and finding jobs. Fowler enrolled in an 80-hour class in Virginia Beach to become a home inspector.

Opportunity Inc. provided the $1,500 to $1,600 tuition and $250 to take the licensing exam. Fowler has since gotten his insurance and business license, and has been circulating fliers and his business card to Realtors.

“I did a home yesterday,” he said Tuesday. “If houses ever start selling again (there should be more work). The competition in Franklin is not that stiff. Most inspectors have to come from out of town.”

As for Yarborough, the drive from Franklin doesn’t bother the 49-year-old, who spent 25 years at IP. He’s just happy to remain here.

Yarborough’s last day at IP was at the end of April. After a weekend off, he began working for KapStone. He found the job through an advertisement in The Tidewater News shortly after IP announced it was closing.

“They were nice enough to wait for me,” said Yarborough, who has a degree in paper science and engineering.

He also likes his new job.

“People care about one another and it’s family-oriented,” Yarborough said. “I feel very blessed.”

He’ll never forget Oct. 22, 2009; it was 9:20 a.m. when the news about IP’s closing broke.

“In the first instant, I felt numbness. It was total shock,” he said. “I didn’t see it coming. I don’t know how they kept he rumor monster quiet.”

It’s been a busy time for the Workforce Investment Board, Opportunity Inc., which has funded many training opportunities for IP’s displaced workers through the One Stop Job Center at the Regional Workforce Development Center, Betz said.

In addition the Virginia Employment Commission has placed more than100 IP Franklin mill, IP Lumber Mill and ATC Panels displaced workers in full-time Trade Act funded training.

Over 70 of these folks are at PDCCC, including 10 former machine operators and production people. They are taking courses in heating ventilation and air conditioning, industrial technology, business management, information technology and nursing, just to name a few areas, he said.

“Overall it’s been a large regional response of many organizations in reskilling and re-employing people within our community impacted by the mill closure,” Betz said. “This work has not been completed yet because many people are still seeking employment. It’s a difficult time for them and their families.”