April 21, 2013

Campbell Soup Co. workers start over

For Glenn Spencer, working at the Campbell Soup Co. plant in south Sacramento was the culmination of an unlikely climb from the depths of drug addiction. Now, Spencer is starting over at age 47.

For Glenn Spencer, working at the Campbell Soup Co. plant in south Sacramento was the culmination of an unlikely climb from the depths of drug addiction.

Starting in the factory's "flour room" in 2007, Spencer said he "made more money in my time at Campbell than all my life before that."

Now, Spencer is starting over at age 47.

Spencer, an Elk Grove resident, was among nearly 300 Campbell workers to lose their jobs in February, part of a gradual shutdown of the 66-year-old plant. When the last cuts are concluded by July 1, more than 700 jobs will be gone.

Some of the lost blue-collar jobs pay $20 an hour or more, and like Spencer, many of the Campbell Soup workers are in their 40s or older – a perilous age to re-enter a local job market that many experts describe as stubbornly difficult.

Sung Won Sohn, an economist at California State University, Channel Islands, warned that displaced blue-collar workers like those from Campbell Soup could find it difficult to secure a new place in Sacramento's economy.

"I'm sure some of the workers can perhaps find jobs in other industries, maybe auto and housing. But I think that would be very few, especially in the Sacramento area. I would say the outlook is not very good," Sohn said.

"The economy actually has a lot of jobs in health care and (information technology), but we have a structural problem," Sohn continued. "People in the food industry are not really qualified to take those jobs."

The state government is attempting to at least partly remedy this disconnect with a $6 million retraining grant awarded in March to the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency.

Gregory Williams, a workforce development professional with Sacramento Works, said his agency will likely see more than 200 former Campbell Soup workers, many of them looking at retraining. He said probable placement areas are clean energy, green technology and truck driving.

He's more optimistic than Sohn.

"In general, people coming out of training are going to work," he said. "Not that long ago, we were seeing a situation where there were no jobs. But with the workforce now, we're encouraged."

SETA is moving funds into career retraining at local community colleges, vocational schools and area firms, administering Sacramento County's share of a nine-county, $19 million award. The Sacramento Works Lay-Off Assistance grant targets employees who lost jobs in mass layoffs.

Spencer is among those trying to reinvent himself. He's planning to learn the heating and air conditioning trade through classes set up by Sacramento Works, and says he might launch his own professional cleaning or car detailing business in the meantime.

"That's the thing. I love to work. I really do," Spencer said.

Spencer said he discovered that about himself at Campbell Soup.

He worked graveyard shift when he first started in the flour room in August 2007. "As you can imagine with a name like the flour room, it was a little dusty. But when I was working there, it didn't look like a flour room. I made sure of that."

Spencer said he quickly won seniority and was trained to be a continuous rotary cooker operator in 2009. Again, he said he worked relentlessly.

"They called me Mr. Overtime," he said.

It was a stark contrast to Spencer's early life. Born at the Fort Ord Army base, Spencer says he tried cocaine when he was only 11; by 15, he was deep down the well.

A recovery path

Living in Seaside, homeless and strung out, Spencer said, his father persuaded him in 2004 to move to Elk Grove to be near his mother. That started Spencer on a recovery path that ultimately led to the Campbell plant on Franklin Boulevard.

Over the past two years, Spencer said, he bought his comfortable Elk Grove home and became engaged.

Then, on Sept. 27 last year, Campbell announced that it was closing its local factory, citing declining canned soup sales and high production costs at the facility.

"It was a real jaw-dropper," Spencer recalled.

He said he has tried to carefully manage his funds as he prepares to move on. Asked if he can save his home, he answered, "Perhaps."

Yet Spencer said he is "not bitter at all" against Campbell and, on the contrary, feels blessed.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I'm not giving up. I look at the training I'm getting as perhaps an opportunity to better my own business if I do that."

While his own outlook is upbeat, Spencer said some of his former colleagues are stressed, seeking any kind of work right now to stay afloat. Others are seeking retraining, but personal finances are limited. They have to make money even as they are being taught new skills.

"I know it's tough for some of them," he added.

Another displaced Campbell worker, 46-year-old Southern California native Adrian White, agreed that former colleagues are under stress.

"I know we had people from war-torn areas, like Pakistan, working there, trying to make enough money to bring their families here to live," White said.

White worked at Campbell for nearly four years, cleaning overhead components to make sure no debris fell into food products. On the day of the closure announcement, White says he dutifully cleared space in the cafeteria, never dreaming of the bombshell about to be dropped on assembled workers.

"It was a shock," he said. "People were crying. There was anger. It was something you didn't expect right then."

Like Spencer, White is making a major midlife career adjustment, heading to Institute of Technology classes to be trained as a pharmacy technician.

White, who lives in a modest, clean, neatly furnished apartment near Highway 99 and Florin Road, said he has meticulously saved money and is prepared for a change. He seems far from depressed; he's quick with a funny line and laughs heartily.

"I've tried to be smart, and I know there are things I can do," he said. "With this (new) training I feel like I'm going to be OK."

A 'fluid' workforce

At Sacramento Works, Williams is assisting displaced Campbell workers on a nearly full-time basis these days.

What he's seen runs the gamut: one emotionally devastated, third-generation employee; some people working to obtain high-school equivalency diplomas and others trying to bolster their basic skills enough to even attempt to take General Educational Development tests that measure high school equivalency.

The good news, Williams said, is that "the workforce has become very fluid. Older workers are getting jobs these days, where that was not really the case 15 or 20 years ago.

"Baby boomers are going back to work. There are employers who are more than willing to hire them on work experience and transferable skills."

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the civilian labor force ages 45 to 54 numbered more than 35 million people in 2012, compared with 33.2 million in 2003.

The statistics bureau acknowledged that a large segment of baby boomers continuing to work has bolstered those numbers, which are likely to spike again for ages 55-and-up in 2018.

California's Employment Development Department said breaking out specific employed/jobless numbers for middle-age workers involves myriad variables. Yet its general conclusions are sobering:

The unemployment rate for older unskilled workers (ages 40-60) is higher than both the rate for the general population (20-60 years old) and the rate for their overall age group.

The jobless rate for older, unskilled workers is more than twice as high as that of their skilled counterparts.

Sacramento Works' Williams said the challenges go beyond statistics.

"You're talking to someone, and then suddenly they break down and start crying. It's very, very heart-wrenching for these people," he said. "You think it's going well. You put 25 or 26 years into something that you thought would last forever. It takes a moment for your feet to land on the ground."

Williams said he believes that initial shock likely prompts inaction among some freshly unemployed workers, "but they need to take advantage of (employment services and grant funding) while they're available. We also tell people that the longer you're out of the labor force, the harder it is to market yourself to a new employer."

Call The Bee's Mark Glover, (916) 321-1184.

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