Julie Waldron said she had a bad feeling when she was summoned to an employee meeting Thursday afternoon at Campbell Soup in south Sacramento. She was unprepared for just how bad it was: an announcement that the plant, opened in 1947, would close.
Waldron, 54, has worked at Campbell's for eight years, moving up from the shipping department to a job as an inventory technician.
"I'm trying not to worry," she said. "I'm a fast learner. My job usually requires a high school diploma and a college degree, but I don't have either, and here I am, making $23 an hour at this job."
Sacramento's Campbell Soup plant offered something that's becoming increasingly scarce in today's economy: stable, middle-class jobs for people with relatively little education. Local training officials said many of them will require retraining to regain a foothold in the new economy.
"Some of them work on the canning line or cook the soups over big vats," said Terri Carpenter, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). "There are not a lot of food processing opportunities in this region, and no soup canneries."
Many of the Campbell Soup employees have been with the company for decades, meaning they're going to have to start over when they're no longer young.
Trino Herrera, 48, a 25-year employee, also attended the afternoon meeting and was shocked at the news. Outside the plant afterward, he and his wife, Linda, looked dazed.
"I bought a new house three years ago," said the soup cook. "I'll probably lose my house. Everyone here has houses, cars, families."
He said the plant manager got misty-eyed and apologized to workers when telling them about the shutdown.
Linda Herrera's eyes filled with tears. "Twenty-five years," she said. "Twenty-five years. We had no idea."
Equipment mechanic Dave Martin said many of his co-workers at Campbell's are in their 50s and have worked at the plant since graduating from high school. He knows many family members who work there together, including husbands and wives.
"My dad, uncle and cousin all work there," Martin said.
Local employment officials were caught flat-footed by Campbell's announcement. Carpenter said it seemed like business as usual; SETA had been scheduled to go to the plant Thursday to administer testing to forklift operators looking for seasonal work. For many years, SETA has conducted screenings and skills assessment for hiring at the Campbell plant.
"They were set to hire 20 forklift operators," Carpenter said. "We just got an email at 6 a.m. telling us the testing was off. This was a total surprise."
She said some workers may be able to translate skills, such as forklift and truck driving or mechanics or maintenance, to jobs at other companies, but some of the positions in the soup- and sauce-making divisions are specialized.
Jobs at other food-processing companies might be found farther south in the Central Valley, around Modesto or Fresno, for employees willing to leave the area, Carpenter said. Others may find work in warehouses or other manufacturing or distribution settings.
But the bulk of the displaced employees will probably draw unemployment benefits while going back to school or getting trained for other occupations, she said.
"I predict they will want to be retrained and look for work in higher-growth industries," Carpenter said.
Carpenter expects the company to partner with SETA to create "rapid response teams" to give employees presentations explaining unemployment benefits and connect them with resources before the plant finishes closing down operations in 2013.
Campbell's said it would provide severance pay but did not offer specifics.
Most of the workers interviewed by The Bee said they were shocked by the announcement that Campbell Soup would close. Martin was not one of them. He said he was up at midnight before Thursday's announcement, sending out a flurry of résumés online.
"Everyone's been hearing rumors for months," Martin, a father of two, said from his Elk Grove home Thursday. "They've been slowly closing the plant and giving away equipment."
Martin said employees had heard depressing reports at recent quarterly meetings. Workers were told their wages and the costs per case of product at the aging plant were higher than elsewhere in the country and that production was outstripping sales.
"They were basically telling us they didn't need that many plants," said Martin, who started sending résumés out two months ago. He and his wife, who works in the billing department of a dental office, have a 5-year-old child and a 7-month-old baby.
As an equipment mechanic, Martin, 26, is more marketable than many of his co-workers. On Thursday afternoon, he was headed to an interview as a mechanic for a Sacramento business that repairs landscaping machinery.
For production line employee Angel P. Torres the prospects are more uncertain. He has worked at the Campbell's plant for 25 years. He declined to give his age as he left Thursday afternoon, saying only that he's nearing retirement and hopes to find a part-time job to supplement his pension.
Without a high school diploma, Torres said, he's too old to think about retraining or going back to school. Still, he supports his mother and his 19-year-old son, a college student, so he must keep working. "I'll take whatever small job I can find, in a factory, or a store," he said.