Hitting Home: Laid-off worker looks to start business in tough times

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Part of the special VPR Series "Hitting Home: The Recession and Vermont"

(Host) All this week, we’re learning how the current economic crisis is hitting home in Vermont.

In the Northeast Kingdom, the economy is always dicey and layoffs are nothing new. But this year, career counselors say finding another job after the dreaded pink slip arrives is especially daunting.

So a few displaced workers are doing what may seem like the impossible in these dark days-they’re starting their own businesses.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright recently met one of them in St. Johnsbury.

(Albright) Dave Askren’s stately white house with periwinkle blue shutters and a lavender door nestles into a sweet little cul de sac next to the campus of St Johnsbury Academy. It’s one reason the recently laid-off software designer doesn’t want to re-locate. Askren loves this place, with its handsome oak woodwork and gracious, tidy rooms. But he knows he could lose it, now that he’s out of work.

(SFX Trumpet practice)

(Albright) So why is he practicing his trumpet instead of pounding the pavement?

Because he hopes music is the key to his next career. He’s had a hard time finding a place in the Northeast Kingdom to get his trumpet repaired, and so have his many musical friends.

(Askren) "And the more I talked to them the more feasible it seemed. So I am taking the plunge and trying to start my own business where I will be repairing instruments and selling musical supplies.”

(Albright) Askren is also sending out resumes to software companies within an hour’s drive from his home, but so far hasn’t received a single response. He figures he looks overqualified for most of the available openings. So he’s banking on starting a business.

(Askren) "It’s very scary. For one thing I’ve been living on my severance package, which will run out in a few months and I have no other source of income."

(Albright) And he’ll have to shell out a good chunk of that severance pay for a three-week instrument repair training program in Colorado. But he’s tired of the software industry that’s kept him and his three grown daughters-triplets-fed and clothed for the past 34 years. Pink slips are nothing new to him-decades ago, on the West Coast, he was laid off by four different companies in four years. But he wasn’t prepared for the phone call he got in mid-October from his boss at Novell’s software division in Lebanon, New Hampshire. A frequent telecommuter, Askren was working at home that day, and caught off guard.

(Askren) "But the worst thing about it was that I was sitting there going, `Oh boy, now I have to look for a job and the economy is not doing very well,’ and although it had been in the back of my mind for the last couple of years that I was getting to the point of really wanting to get out of software development, I wanted to do it on my terms and not having to suddenly: This is it I’ve gotta do it right away."

(Albright) Askren says Novell’s parent company hatched the layoff plan in July, yet kept assuring the workers their jobs were secure until a week and a half before the boom fell. Adding to his stress, the sudden layoff is trickling down to his daughters. One, an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, may have to give up her dreams and come home, now that her dad can’t help her make rent. Another, a single mother still in college, is also struggling to make ends meet.

(Askren) "Yeah, this is a very big deal. It hits all of us hard and it’s tough to cope with.”

(Albright) And Askren doesn’t see how any of the federal bailouts or stimuli will help middle-class families like his. He’s always been careful with his money, but won’t get much help from a tax cut if he has no job. And he can’t see himself building roads and bridges in a jobs corps. But he did take advantage of career counseling from the state’s Labor Department office in St. Johnsbury. His advisor, Cindy Robillard, says he was unusually good at cycling quickly through the anger and grief that come from a sudden job loss, and she thinks he’s got a decent shot at success.

(Robillard) "Just like Dave, I think that anyone who puts their passion in these small businesses can make a go of it. So I admire anybody who wants to do that I think there is support for that.”

(Albright) But Robillard admits that not everyone who walks into her office-and that foot traffic is up by 20 percent these days– has Askren’s wide and unique set of skills and experiences. Some are machinists recently idled at Kenemetal, the local metalworking plant. Or they’re among the 190 workers who will be unemployed when Lydall Industries, which makes filtration systems for cars, moves to North Carolina later this year. No, she says, Askren is an unusual one-man band.

(SFX trumpet piece)

(Albright) Back in the house he loves, he’s preparing his next trumpet solo in a chilly room filled with trophies. As a young marathoner, he almost landed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. In his mid-50s now, he could be in the race of his life, sprinting for a brand new starting line before his checking account runs dry.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright, in St. Johnsbury.

Top Photo: Herb Swanson

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