A turnaround story with ambitious beginnings

January 2001. Five hundred people out of work. Plant bankrupt. Receivers in place. Gates locked. Lifetimes stopped.

Rumours sifted through Volkswagen for years. And then the plant was bought by Alloy Wheels International and rumours still sifted. Those on the line would pick up tidbits of information. Human Resources personnel would give no employment references, confirming only dates.

When the axe fell in 2000, for the 505 people whose lives stopped still, it was almost a relief. After living and working in fear for years, people finally faced a different kind of tomorrow.

For awhile it all made headlines. Workers with 20 years service, no severance, weeks to wait before EI kicked in, mortgages, families, taxes etc. etc. And now the workers are standing in line with creditors, waiting for small payments once the plant is sold.

This is the story behind the stories because now, 14 months later, over 90 percent of those AWI workers have started new lives.

This is the story of courage, camaraderie, support, encouragement and celebration.

When the plant closed, a team of people from Human Resources Development Canada and the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities worked with representatives from AWI (both hourly & salaried) and hired MacKenzie/McIntyre to help folks get back to work.

Stephanie MacKenzie chaired this Adjustment Committee since May, 2001, working first from an office at the plant and later from an office at 80 Bradford St. She tells amazing stories of amazing people who, faced with disaster, marshalled their resources and went out looking.

The work landscape had changed enormously and hourly wages enjoyed at AWI felt impossible to find in the Barrie region. In many cases, both husband and wife worked at AWI, an enormous impact on a family.

Workers found that without high school diplomas, employment doors were slow to open. Workers found they were expected to have computer skills. They found a work environment which felt like they’d changed course and landed in another country. Take Carmino, for instance. Serious, dedicated, determined and willing, he quickly found a job in the manufacturing sector only to be laid off after the impacts of September 11. Undaunted, he found another job only to be laid off from it, too. He maintained a positive attitude and turned his attention to helping others who showed up day after day, working with Stephanie and her team. His positive energy paid off and he’s now a valuable member of the great team of people at Moore Packaging in Barrie.

Imagine after 20 years sitting at a computer and having to learn how to develop a resume and cover letter that reflects not only what you’ve been doing, but what you hope to do! It’s a daunting task that required hours of discussion, thought, and expression.

Many workers took advantage of employment counselling and workshops through the Career Centre; others grabbed internet training and employment support at the Employment Resource Centres. But most stayed in steady contact with the AWI Action Centre, checking in for job ads, sharing job leads with other people, making sure that opportunities were put up on the bulletin board. They worked to succeed in spite of barriers.

One by one by one by one… Lucas, Keith, Alex, Diane, Jim and Don all chose self employment and started their own businesses through the federal government’s Self Employment Assistance program. Another 13 people started up on their own. For an assembly line worker like Diane, now proud owner of Luv to Paint, the end of AWI was like turning the propellor and taking flight. She’s designing and painting murals that are bringing life to offices and kids’ rooms all over the region. Alex is turning his love of perennials and rock into Gardens Plus. Keith took his passion for motorcycles and machining and is producing custom bike parts as AKA Custom. Jim has HFC Computing and is networking computers all over Barrie. And Don, with P.D.A.Associates, is using his communications skills to coach people into effective personal development. Lucas has invented an electrical coil and plans to market it worldwide.

As Stephanie looks at the tremendous number of people she’s worked with, she shakes her head in wonderment. She tells the story of one fellow who took a bartending course and put together a very graphic resume, complete with a watermark martini glass on his resume page. “A real no-no, from our point of view,” says Stephanie, “but he was determined.” He was right, too. He’s now a bartender at Georgian Downs.

While there are many, many happy stories, there are sad stories of bankruptcies, and of people who’ve decided to just retire. But the happy stories far outweight the sad ones.

And for Stephanie, whose head office is in Toronto, commuting to Barrie and working here has been an unexpected treat. “This is the most amazing community,” she said as she sold off equipment, and locked the doors on the final day of the action centre last week. “People share information readily, they support each other, community agencies who really care about what they’re doing; it’s a great place to build relationships.”

She applauded Ed Little, an AWI union rep who was so dedicated to helping people find new work that he gave incredible personal commitment to getting the action centre up and operating quickly. Ed sourced computers, tables, faxes, filing cabinets, desks, bulletin boards… all the equipment needed to help in re-employment. SAtephanie gives much credit to the whole team–when they left, it was to pursue other avenues.

And so, the general measures of “next step success”…

Most people with full time or part time work. Approximately 20 people self-employed. Individuals back in school for academic upgrading or specific training programs. People who decided to pursue other interests, moved etc. And of course, always a group who want to do it on their own.

It’s an incredible story. They’re incredible people. And if I could make the words on this page clap hands with applause, I’d do it.

Thanks, AWI people, for showing us all how it’s done with style.