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Two years later, Spokane’s laid-off tech workers regroup

Sun., March 13, 2011

It started in February 2009 when General Dynamics announced it would lay off about 320 well-paid Spokane Valley tech workers later that year. It was closing down General Dynamics Itronix, a profitable manufacturer of ruggedized computers that it acquired in 2005.

Around the same time, Agilent Technologies company officers began planning a series of layoffs at its Liberty Lake operation. By the end of 2010 Agilent would let go about 200 highly paid engineers, technicians, programmers, managers and marketing specialists.

That double-barrel economic shock continues to reverberate across the region. Many of those laid off are still unemployed or taking college-level courses for retraining.

Spokane’s loss of those skilled, high-wage jobs has left a large economic crater the community is still dealing with, said Doug Tweedy, regional labor economist for Washington’s Employment Security Department. If there’s an upside, Tweedy said it’s the creation of a large pool of skilled workers that area companies could draw from.

A full two years since the layoffs began, those roughly 520 tech workers are adjusting to life after downsizing. A large number remained in the Spokane and North Idaho economy, taking jobs with long-established firms or with startups.

Since many were near or at retirement age, those with well-managed 401(k) plans either stopped working or moved away. A very small number of workers from Itronix and Agilent are still in the area, still working but doing their jobs from home.

Tim Plass, a research engineer working with the federal government who has tracked the paths taken by many of those who lost work, said the hardest hit was within the first six months after the layoffs began.

“It seems only 20 to 30 found work in the area in the first six months,” said Plass, who stays in touch with former colleagues at both firms. He was laid off from Agilent in 2007 after working there for more than 20 years as a wireless engineer. He went to work at Itronix and was laid off there in May 2009.

Plass was lucky. He got a good engineering job but had to commute from Spokane to Bingen, Wash., where he worked for defense contractor Insitu.

Plass kept hunting for a Spokane job. Last summer he was hired as a research engineer in the Spokane office of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Plass guesses that between 15 and 25 percent of those laid off from the two firms left the area, either for new jobs or to retire.

Both firms also offered workers the chance to move to another company location. It’s not clear how many did that.

Plass uses two LinkedIn social network groups to track where his former co-workers are now. He has found dozens of instances of people being hired across the region, ranging from jobs at large companies such as Schweitzer Engineering Labs in Pullman to small startups like Spokane Valley’s Flyback Energy.

“Surprisingly, I think over half of (those who stayed in the area) found new positions in the last year in the local area,” Plass said.

Many others are in school taking advantage of federal retraining money, he said. The full cost of his college tuition and books is covered through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Act. That program provides retraining and unemployment money to workers whose jobs have been replaced overseas.

Of those staying in this area, many were tempted to leave, but chose to stay because of family obligations, home ownership or the daunting prospect of living in a higher-cost location.

Here are six vignettes of people who have redirected their careers after the two big layoffs:

Paul Perovich: owner, SpeedPro Imaging

After more than 25 years as a product and program manager, first with Hewlett Packard, then with Agilent after the Liberty Lake office was renamed in 2001, Perovich lost his job in 2009.

He considered relocating his family to Santa Rosa, Calif., to Agilent’s main office. But the higher cost of living and the disruption to his family seemed too huge.

Perovich, 49, interviewed with several area companies for technical or managerial positions but did not land an offer.

“I’ve wanted to run my own business for the past five years or so,” he said. He started researching options and came upon Speedpro Imaging, a nationwide large-format print and poster-design company.

The fast-growing company had no stores in the Spokane area. And it scored high on a variety of websites that rank franchise opportunities. Perovich and his wife invested more than $150,000 to get a franchise started. He opened his doors in a Spokane Valley location last fall.

He likes the change that comes with running his own business, even if he works 12-hour days.

“The main thing is getting people aware of us, that we’re here,” Perovich said.

Jim Vocature: MBA student

Vocature worked at Itronix for 10 years as a software applications manager. He was laid off in July 2009. Not being an engineer, he knew his job prospects would improve if he added a business degree on top of his tech experience.

He’s enrolled, along with some other former colleagues, in Gonzaga University’s master of business administration program. He’s using the TAA benefit, which covers tuition, books and other education costs.

He’s applied for a number of area jobs but hasn’t landed one yet.

Vocature is considering getting an additional tech certification to boost his career profile.

He used to make $83,600 at Itronix. “Now I’m looking for jobs for about $65,000,” he said.

“Another strike I’m facing is that I’m 62,” Vocature said. Like many others who were within 10 years or retirement age, he said Spokane seems to have limited job choices for gray-haired techies.

Jeff and Jan Owen: Different paths

The married couple both worked at Agilent for roughly 15 years. Jeff, who’s 42, was a senior product manager; Jan, 40, was a software developer. She was laid off in 2009 and he in fall 2010.

Both landed quickly in new jobs.

A few months after losing her job, Jan met with the principals at Spokane patent law firm Sadler Breen Morasch Colby. The company has already hired one engineer from Itronix who had recommended Owen.

In September 2009 Jan took a job there as a technical analyst; she intends to complete training to be a patent agent.

She doesn’t make quite what she earned before, but with bonuses and other incentives, the salary is close, she said.

“It’s refreshing to try something different,” she said.

Jeff Owen was offered the chance to move to Santa Rosa to stay with Agilent. Because the Owens have two young children, the move loomed too disruptive.

Out of luck or good networking, he learned that Liberty Lake company Purcell Systems was hiring. His marketing and engineering background got him the job last December as a product manager, helping Purcell design and build outdoor enclosures for network carriers like Verizon and Sprint.

“I really am glad I can work in a smaller company now,” Jeff said. “It’s more entrepreneurial; you get to see your impact on customers much faster.”

Jeanne Fightmaster: mom

Fightmaster, 38, started at Hewlett Packard almost 13 years ago in sales support and business development. She eventually had the chance to work part-time, which allowed her enough time to start a family.

She became a marketing specialist during her last several years at Agilent. In early 2009 she learned her job would end in several months. Her final day was in September 2009.

She and her husband, Ken Fightmaster, have three elementary school-age children.

Her husband was a regional sales rep for a Seattle company. At the same time she learned her job would end, her husband began worrying about his.

Jeanne looked around and saw no jobs available that paid anything close to what she earned at Agilent. She also concluded it was not the time to go back to school.

She decided to stay home while her husband chose to start his own business. He operates his own Allstate insurance agency in Spokane Valley.

Together, they have roughly 70 percent of the household income they had before. They live frugally, but Jeanne said they’ve always done that. “The money we saved (in the months leading up to her final days at Agilent) was how we were able to purchase the insurance business,” she said.

Marty Gulseth: Avista engineer

Gulseth is 64 and just landed a new job as an associate distribution engineer for Avista Utilities.

He worked several stints with Hewlett Packard/Agilent going back as far as 1992. He didn’t have an engineering background, instead working in sales and business development.

After his final job at Agilent ended in 2008, Gulseth looked at his choices. He decided to sharpen his technical background. He opted to use his TAA benefits to take Gonzaga’s transmission and distribution certification course.

The $12,500 course took him 12 months; he finished a few months ago and landed his current job at Avista quickly after.

“I told my wife that we might not find a decent job in this area. I was willing to move anywhere,” Gulseth said.

“All things considered, I’m very happy to have this job, that uses my education and experience. I read about a lot of others who haven’t been as fortunate,” he said.



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