SEATTLE — They are mortgage brokers, mechanics, legal assistants. They live in Kansas, Texas, Saudi Arabia.
All are former local Boeing workers who have spent the past few years struggling to create new lives after the company that employed them for much of their adult lives laid them off.
The round of Boeing layoffs that went into effect after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was one of the single biggest hits to a state that is among the national leaders in unemployment. Nearly 25,000 workers in the Puget Sound region have been laid off since December 2001. Even so, the Seattle-founded aerospace giant now headquartered in Chicago remains Washington’s biggest employer.
Carving out new professional identities during their middle years has not always been easy for those who lost jobs. Some are still job hunting.
“It’s been crazy since I got laid off,” said Patricia Maguire, 54, who lost her job as a quality assurance worker in January, 2002. “I can’t say I’ve had a normal life.”
Maguire spent nine months trying in vain to find employment in Seattle, then sold her West Seattle home of 32 years to move to a cheaper place in Lake Chelan, in central Washington.
Another seven months ticked by before she found work — as a psychiatric technician at the local hospital, making roughly a quarter of her former income.
“When Boeing’s in an upswing, you couldn’t work with better people, but when you’re in layoff mode, it totally changes,” she said.
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Boeing’s employment rate reflects the number of planes it produces, which “goes up and down like a mountain range,” said state economist Roberta Pauer. In its last production peak of 1999, Boeing delivered 561 planes out of Puget Sound. In 2004, the company is expected to deliver 245, she said.
Pauer expects Boeing’s orders and production to pick up in the second half of 2005, but the waiting list for those hoping to be rehired is long. And other job prospects appear dim.
“It’s been worse than tough,” Pauer said. “All the placement help in the world, all the job search strategies in the world don’t help you if the jobs aren’t there.”
Many of the workers have moved on to jobs in health care, truck driving and teaching, said Linda Thys, Tri-County Trade Act Program Coordinator for the state Employment Security Department.
The unemployment rate in the region between January 1997 and December 2000 stayed in the 3 percentile range. Then the recession hit. Since December 2001, when the Boeing layoffs began, unemployment rates have been in the high 6 and low 7 percentiles and have only recently started improving, Pauer said.
“If you have skills and experience specific to Boeing’s plane design and production, you have few alternatives. If you have generalizable skills, you also have few alternatives,” Pauer said. “It’s simply not been a favorable picture, and there’s no way to sugarcoat that.”
Many displaced workers have left the region to find work, said Connie Kelliher, spokeswoman for the Machinists Union District 751. One even moved his family to Saudi Arabia to take a job as an airplane engine maintenance worker, she said.
Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia and Texas were the most popular destinations for starting over, Thys said.
Others stuck around and are still looking for jobs.
Shirley Stanhope used to pull in $30 an hour as a machinist. Now she’s scraping by on $446 weekly unemployment checks.
Stanhope, 50, was laid off in April 2003 after 16 years with Boeing and has been unable to find work. The mother of four has leased-out her Auburn home and moved to lower-cost Brennan.
“I get pretty frustrated,” she said. “When you’re getting up to my age it’s hard to start over.”
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As a sixth-grader, David Puki would often get in trouble for drawing airplanes and daydreaming about Boeing during class. Getting hired as a toolmaker in 1973 was a dream come true.
By the time he was laid off for the third time on Aug. 30, 2002, the 49-year-old Sea-Tac resident knew it was time to let the dream go.
Surviving on his $500 weekly unemployment checks has been difficult for the single father who used to rake in nearly six figures a year.
“I can’t tell you the last time I was at a restaurant,” Puki said. “For this family, the $5 pizza Fridays at Safeway — that’s a big deal.”
Puki is studying to be an auto mechanic and tutors students at South Seattle Community College. He hopes to someday work as a teacher or at a car dealership.
He often finds himself staring wistfully out his window at the airplanes flying by, but knows a chapter in his life has ended.
“I’ve decided I’ve done what I could in the commercial aircraft field and it’s time to move on,” he said.
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Some laid-off workers experienced career culture shock with new professions that bore little resemblance to their previous jobs.
April Kramer spent 14 years working by herself as a Boeing machinist. She was laid off in 1993 and again in December 2001.
Her switch to a job as a respiratory therapist at Seattle’s notoriously hectic Harborview Medical Center was terrifying at first.
“They don’t call it ‘Harborzoo’ for nothing,” said Kramer, 44, who now works at Auburn Regional Medical Center. “One thing that Boeing people don’t really seem to realize is there’s a lot of competitiveness out there in the world. We were kind of sheltered.”
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Within six months of Kathy McGill’s February 2002 layoff, her mother died and she got divorced.
Unable to afford her home in Puyallup, McGill, 44, and her 12-year-old daughter, Kylie, moved in with McGill’s 20-year-old son, A.J., in Kent.
The former fabrication inspector obtained a legal assistance degree and in November was hired by a Tacoma law firm.
Although she’s earning about half her previous pay, McGill said she’s living a childhood dream and definitely doesn’t miss wearing steel-toed boots.
“I always felt like if I would have had a choice to do it differently, I would have gone into the legal profession long ago,” she said.
McGill said she recently read “Who Moved My Cheese?,” a book about coping with change. The story touched a nerve.
“Don’t be afraid that because you’re middle-aged, you can’t change or you can’t make a living at something new, because you can,” she said. “Just have a positive attitude ... and be willing to let go of what the past was.”