How employable am I at 57 and being laid off?

“Part II of our article focusing on the Auto Industry after the government bailout of 2008”

Shifting winds

Now Fiat Chrysler is applying the brakes on Cherokee production and eliminating the third shift at Belvidere. Fiat Chrysler has given no indication of further cutbacks, but there are reasons for concern, according to Michelle Krebs, a Detroit-based analyst for Autotrader.

“The third shift is always the first to go when sales begin slumping,” Krebs said.

Fiat Chrysler sales fell 3.2 percent in the first quarter of 2019, outpacing the 2.5 percent year-over-year decline across the broader auto industry, according to Edmunds.

But beyond industry trends, Krebs said the Belvidere plant faces an uphill climb with its reliance on the Jeep Cherokee, an older nameplate relaunched as an all-new model in 2013.

A redesigned Cherokee won’t arrive until 2022, according to Fiat Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson.

A bigger concern for Belvidere’s future may be something it cannot control: its location. While Fiat Chrysler is laying off employees in Illinois, it announced plans to build a new $4.5 billion assembly plant in Detroit, and to retool five existing facilities in Michigan, creating nearly 6,500 jobs.

“One disadvantage a plant like Belvidere has is it’s kind of out of the way from all the other plants,” Krebs said. “It’s one of the things considered when they decide where to put products into plants.”

Krebs pointed to location as a key reason GM pulled the plug on its plant in Janesville, Wis., during the Great Recession in December 2008. That decision, once unthinkable, ended a 90-year run for the auto plant, displacing 1,200 remaining workers.

Economic impact

Even if the Belvidere plant maintains a two-shift operation, the elimination of the third crew may have far-reaching consequences.

An economic impact analysis by Northern Illinois University projected that more than 3,600 auto industry and other jobs could be lost in the wake of the plant layoffs, reducing the region’s annual gross domestic product by $467 million.

“This is a serious event in the regional economy up here,” said Brian Harger, a researcher at the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies who conducted the analysis.

Job one is, of course, finding work for thousands of displaced employees, who made between $17 and $28 per hour at the Belvidere plant, according to Tinson.

Some development officials point to low unemployment and a diverse manufacturing economy led by a booming aerospace industry as reasons for optimism. Leading aerospace companies include Collins, which has 1,700 local employees, and Woodward, which has 2,000 employees.

“I’m not overly worried about our area’s ability to pull the slack right back,” said Nathan Bryant, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. “Although it is a blow, it’s not an insurmountable challenge for our market to begin to reabsorb a lot of those positions over time.”

But others are skeptical, saying it will be difficult to place so many autoworkers in comparable positions anytime soon.

“We’ve done some research on available manufacturing positions,” said John Strandin, a spokesman for the Workforce Connection, a state and federally funded Rockford-based organization providing employment training programs. “A lot of them are engineering-type positions — it’s not an exact match.”

The Workforce Connection held a hiring event Wednesday for displaced Chrysler, Android and Syncreon workers at the UAW Hall in Belvidere, with about 100 job seekers and 36 employers attending. Offerings included second-shift chip cook at Kettle Foods in Beloit, Wis.; warehouse delivery at Choice Furniture in Rockford; and machinist at Rockford-based Kaney Aerospace.

Pam Lopez-Fettes, executive director of Growth Dimensions, the economic development organization for Belvidere and Boone County, said it will be hard for laid-off Chrysler workers to find jobs that pay as well.

“It’s going to be a challenge to find somebody with competitive wages,” Lopez-Fettes said.

Deep anxiety

In Belvidere, as the third crew departs, everybody from retired autoworkers to a local barber has an opinion on the fate of the plant and the city .

Jeff Hale, 53, of Rockford, a 22-year veteran of the Belvidere plant, didn’t lose his job, but he attended the UAW informational session with his less-tenured brother, Jerry, 49, who was laid off.

“It’s going to hurt the economy,” Hale said. “They’re going to feel it. I’ve seen places close when we’ve cut shifts — restaurants, bars, small businesses around the area.”

Then there’s James Emanuel, owner of Hub Barber Shop, a downtown Belvidere institution dating back more than a century. He was philosophical about the layoffs as he pulled out a straight razor to do the final trims for his lone customer.

“That’s just the nature of the automobile industry. It’s always going up and down,” Emanuel said. “There’s been a lot of people that have been fortunate to work out there during the good times, put their 30 (years) in and now they’re done.”

One such worker was Jerry Hall, 73, a lifelong Belvidere resident who was employed at the plant from its opening in 1965 until his retirement in 2001, and later ran a coin shop on State Street.

Hall ruminated on the fallout from the layoffs after a late-afternoon meal at Grandma’s Family Restaurant, a Belvidere diner which has been serving workers from the nearby Chrysler plant for 25 years.

“It worries everybody, if you have anything invested in this town,” said Hall, whose wife of 53 years died last August. The UAW sent him a “very nice” plant.

Hall, who recently bought a new Ram truck to support the company that employed him throughout his career, said the Chrysler plant brought growth and development to Belvidere.

At the same time, he remembered what happened when Belvidere’s previous manufacturing giant, the National Sewing Machine Co., closed up shop in the 1950s, putting his own father out of a job.

“He went to Rockford, did machinist work for a while,” Hall said. “Then he came back to Belvidere and he was a janitor before he retired.”

Dovey, a Boston transplant who has “put down roots” in Illinois in a home he owns with his wife, said the outlook for Belvidere and the plant appeared bleak on the eve of his layoff, worrying aloud about the future of Fiat Chrysler itself.

But more than anything, he pondered a question for which he had no answer:

“I’m 57. How employable am I going to be after this?”

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