Doing the Hard Times

The Start of it All

Today is August 4, 2010. I woke up this morning and recalled, it was two years ago today that I was laid off as my employer began to ramp down for closure. I worked in a semi-conducter plant, or fab, as they are commonly known inside the industry. It was located in Eugene, OR, on the west end of town and neatly tucked in on the side of a hill. So strategically placed, and hidden by trees, it was nearly invisible unless one were quite close. Not bad for a building nearly the size of a cruise ship.

It had been built by the Hyundai Corporation of South Korea. Most of us know the company by the large number of Hyundai automobiles on the streets. I first heard of the vehicle about twenty-five years ago when I was selling industrial equipment in the Midwest. One of the local radio stations broadcast an advertisement several times a day boasting a brand new Hyundai for less than seven thousand dollars. That was cheap even back then.

But most people probably don't realize how large the corporation really is. In addition to cars, they build construction equipment, and are heavily involved in shipping. In Korea, they are of the same magnitude as any fortune two hundred company here in the US. The semi-conductor business was a new venture for them, however, when they constructed their only US facility. Personal computers began to take off during the eighties, and demand for new and innovative peripherals and components was growing. RAM, DRAM, and SDRAM were especially popular as advances in technology were making new machines not only priced lower but also obsolete in a year or so. A lot of companies tossed their hat into the ring of electronic memory manufacturing in those days.

Hyundai built their plant in Eugene and started production in nineteen ninety eight from what I was told. They hired a large number of workers, and ran for about three years before announcing a furlough of all workers while the plant was retooled. In January 2002, they started hiring again, and I was offered a job in November of 2003. People have a tendency to be gun shy after a thing like that, and during my entire time of nearly five years, rumors of another closing circulated and recirculated around. Finally two years ago, they proved true.

Signs of Problems

Probably, no one was really surprised about the recession. It had been in the news for several months before it happened, and then Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers both hit the rocks. Gasoline was over four dollars a gallon in most places, and millions of homeowners were facing significant increases in mortgage payments. My employer took some strong cost cutting steps and a general disquiet settled in among the workers. Our management team denied the rumors even while some key people were resigning abruptly. The production slowed to a trickle. Finally in July 2008, the company president paid a visit to the Oregon Governor and confirmed the rumors. The plant would be fully idled by the end of October.

The downfall for the electronic memory industry was widespread. Intel, Micron, and most others were hit as well as Hyundai. Part of the problem, it seems, is that the product is mass produced in a commodity-like fashion. Regardless of the manufacturer, most memory products are very similar and are produced in very similar operations. Because of that, the market and demand dictate the price, instead of the manufacturer pricing it at a profitable margin. There is often a surplus also, as most companies are producing as much product as they can all the time. But when people quit buying new toys, and technology made operations like the one in Eugene inefficient, closures were inevitable. The story was, that Hyundai closed several more fabs in Korea and China shorty after the one in Oregon shut down.

Reflections

I thought of all these things as I was driving to work this morning. I'm one of the lucky ones. Over eleven hundred people were dumped on a rapidly weakening job market over the span of sixty days during the late summer of 2008 from this one company alone. A few found jobs quickly, expecting the worst and planning for it. Numerous others moved away. Other fabs in the Portland area, and other states including Utah and Texas were still doing okay and some found work there. Many, including myself, opted for an opportunity with the Federal Trade Act, which allows workers to be retrained in the event their employer leaves the stateside operations and moves overseas. I never heard the numbers but I would suspect well over half of my former co-workers went to school. For some of them, they continue to go, but the unemployment they were drawing is running out, and many are looking for work before they finish their studies.

These thoughts went through my mind this morning as I drove by a Hyundai dealership, filled with the 2010 models. I wondered how business was going for them, and I wondered who in this day of over ten percent unemployment is willing or able to spend the money for a new car. Most of all, I wondered at the irony of the same company that pulled the rug out from under so many people making money off their friends, families, and neighbors.

As I said I am lucky. My education went well, and I found suitable employment although I was beginning to wonder. My own unemployment was in no danger of running out for a while, but I was at the point where I was by necessity going to have to take the first comparable paying position that presented itself. Just when I thought I had reached the end of the line, something came through. I also thought about that old adage about failure. That failure only happens when you quit trying, or something like that. As I said, I am lucky.

But I still think about some who weren't, or haven't been yet. Several friends are still looking. Scott, Dan, Chris, Tim, just to name a few. In a way, I probaby am experiencing a form of "survivors remorse." People who survive a disaster while watching others perish go through this, and I occasionally experience something similar to that. I would feel better if there were something I could do.

More Reflections

I started this hub in August of 2010 as you saw in the first paragraph. I became involved in other endeavors and this project was set aside until today, January 25, 2011. It has been a little over five months, and looking back I realize I spoke too soon and too optimistically. My job, had a training and evaluation period, at the culmination of which, my employer and I parted ways. It may be better that way as the last few weeks, I saw it wasn't really a good fit. However, in that field, it seems there are fewer opportunities today than there were last summer when I started. I will probably have to take a position in a different field and have already included many of them in my job search.

On a positive note, at least two of my friends and former co-workers found jobs. I mentioned Chris a little earlier, and he found a job related to the studies he took in Criminal Justice He has been working for about two months now. Scott also went to work, although he wasn't able to find anything in his chosen field. At least now he can pay his bills while he continues to look. And looking is the key. You can find anything if you just keep looking.

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