Northwest Airlines and other Minnesota-based carriers have laid off more than 3,000 employees in the state since Sept. 11. Those workers have the bad luck of needing to find a job in the toughest labor market in years. Rejoining the workforce may be an even taller task for those who had spent most of their careers in the airline industry.
Doug Seashore used to commute 45 minutes every day from his home in Faribault to his job as an Northwest Airlines aircraft mechanic. But in late September, Northwest laid Seashore off.
He thought of maybe going on unemployment and staying home for awhile with his two young daughters. But he was restless for work. So he took his tool box to Harry Brown's auto dealership in Faribault and applied for a job as a mechanic. He knew little about cars, but enough about engines in general to convince them he could learn.
"They've trained me a little bit. Just the guys around here have helped me out. They have all the service manuals here. They are just giving me jobs where I can just tear into the engines. It's kind of a learning process all by itself," he says.
Seashore says the job is interesting and fun. But it pays $13 an hour less than his job at Northwest. And he wants badly to work on airplanes again. "Aircraft is where I started, it's where I want to retire from. It's really what I'd like to do the most. I'm very happy that I am employed right now. But I really like aircraft and hope to get back to that at some point," he says.
Seashore says he hopes people will get over their fear of flying so he can return to his old job.
For now, that seems at best a distant hope. There's been some increase in passenger loads since late September. But Northwest is still flying many fewer people now than it did last year.
"The big problem I think I'm having with the airline people is that so many of them are in denial."
- Dan Segura, Minnesota dislocated workers program
When Northwest announced plans to lay off thousands of workers in Minnesota, state agencies geared up to help. Some of the state officials involved in the effort admit it won't be easy for some former airline workers to find new work that pays as well.
"The big problem I think I'm having with the airline people is that so many of them are in denial. They don't believe that this is going to last," according to Dan Segura, who works with the state's dislocated workers program.
Analysts say the downturn in air travel could last for a year or more. So state officials like Segura are preparing airline workers for jobs in other industries.
At a workforce center on Lake Street in Minneapolis, several former airline workers are meeting to learn about the dislocated workers' program.
On one wall is a poster with the word success at the bottom. The picture is of a road winding through a forest. Above, through the trees, there's a bright white light shining.
But some in the room say they're still in the woods. Melissa Otto, who also lost her job in September, spent 11 years with Northwest. Now she doesn't know where she wants to work. "I've been an aviation lifer. Dispatched aircraft, worked with pilot training, and lately was working with engineering and marketing to design aircraft interiors. So trying to sort out how all of those skills - and over a decade of that experience - can translate to some other industry is kind of an enormous task, and a bit daunting," Otto says.
Otto had reached a fairly senior level at Northwest, and is confident she'll find rewarding work sometime soon.
For some other less-experienced workers, the layoffs have brought hardship.
At a coffee shop in Rosemount, Beri Corcoran considers her future. In her two years at Northwest, she worked a wide range of jobs, from cleaning planes, to de-icing them. "One of the things that landed me my job with Northwest was I said that I wanted with an airline so bad that I would scrape gum off a runway. That's exactly the way I feel," Corcoran says.
Corcoran is a single mom with two boys. One needs leg braces. The other, at the age of 4, was diagnosed with kidney cancer that has since gone into remission.
Corcoran has a job at a Best Buy store. But she gets paid far less than she did at the airline. And, come Jan. 1, her benefits from Northwest will run out. She's not sure her insurance from her new job will give her boys the coverage they need. Yet Corcoran is defiantly optimistic.
"With having a son that was diagnosed with cancer, making it through that and watching him fight, nothing comes anywhere close. I know that things will be fine. I mean there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When I get there I have no idea," Corcoran says.