I began my day at work, November 11, 1986, just as I had any other day at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS), the largest private employer in the state of Virginia. I walked through the big, heavy iron gates bearing the company name and logo, spoke with the guard who was verifying IDs, and walked towards the apprentice school. For the past six years, I’d acted as assistant manager of employee recreation.
Tough economic times were being felt by the company. Several departments had already seen personnel reduction, and it was “rumored” that more changes were on the horizon. Though no one knew exactly what the changes might be, morale was sinking.
That morning, as I entered the apprentice school office, I had no premonition this would be my last day of employment with NNS. From all outward appearances, it looked like a normal day of employee recreation and apprentice admissions forms. But close to lunch time, I heard Jim, my boss, tell the secretary he needed to speak with me.
“Bill, could I speak with you for a moment?”
“Good. Let’s go in the conference room.”
As I entered the room, he turned and motioned for me to close the door. Alarm spread through my body because at the apprentice school, doors were seldom shut. As he began to speak, my breath became jagged, and my heart raced.
“You remember the staff meeting which stated our department would be reducing its staff by Christmas? Well, this is it. Bill, I have to let you go. You’ll get generous severance, but this is your notice. I’m sorry.” Acting as administrator yet still trying to be my friend, his little speech was blunt, but his eyes were full of care and compassion.
My body turned numb, and my voice sounded unfamiliar to my own ears. “Jim, I’ve been with the yard for over six years. I’ve…”
“I’m sorry.” He broke in, “Upper management wants a company-wide cutback. And that precludes transferring personnel to other departments. We’ve been forced to eliminate employee recreation, plus a number of teachers.” He rose from his seat, “They’re waiting for you in personnel. Again, I’m sorry Bill.” He was gone.
Stumbling out into the hall. I was greeted by about 10 people. Several coaches and teachers, with tears in their eyes, shook my hand and hugged me stating their shock and sorrow. Phil Janaro, co-worker and brother-in-Christ, stood with tears unashamedly running down both cheeks. “You’ll be alright! You know who takes care of you. You just keep those eyes on Him!”
Gathering my things, I bid my last farewells. For some reason, it has always been company policy that all departing management personnel were escorted to the gate by security. As I left the apprentice building, a friend in security met me and walked me through the gate and across the street to personnel and then…took my badge.
In the hall milled a group of people who had been laid off, the sounds of their conversation reaching my ears seemed of dreamlike quality:
“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“I’ve been with this company 25 years.”
“There’s no more loyalty anymore. Everyone cares only for themselves.”
Shaking my head, I lowered myself into a chair to await my “exit interview.” Finally, it came my turn to be interviewed. Strange how one word can signify a beginning and an ending.
Afterwards, I unlocked the door of my car and collapsed in the driver’s seat. Sitting slumped behind the wheel, I kept asking myself the question, why me? Why now after six years? Starting the engine, I backed out of my slip–for the last time–heading for home.
The following Monday, I forced myself to go and apply for unemployment compensation. Never in my adult life had I been laid off. Feeling ashamed, I could hardly look the clerk in the eye.
Yet, I was determined that I would not give up and redoubled my efforts of networking and finding job leads. But as the months passed and rejections mounted, I soon faded into depression. My self-esteem hit bottom.
Then one night, my wife Anne sat down and wrapped her arms around me. “What you’re feeling is normal. But you can’t let your feelings disable you and control you.” She told me, “We’re gonna make it!”
After my exit from NNS, I faced nearly 18 months of unemployment. Finally, after many resumes and miles traveled, I returned to full-time employment.
That year, 1992, may go down as a year of economic recovery, but the year also had its dark side for military communities—and the agencies and small businesses that supported them. The level of unemployment was the highest in 16 years—the worse rate since the year following the Vietnam War. The cause of worker dislocation was the same: post-recession reduction in military spending.
The word dislocate carries the meaning, “to displace an organ or part, especially a bone from a joint.” The very definition of dislocate conveys the idea of pain. Just as dislocating a bone, it is a very painful experience to lose a job!
That was just over thirty years ago, and as a community, we have faced another economic challenge: the covid pandemic. And although the virus is behind us, the economic trimmers are still being felt. Many friends among the ecclesia may be shocked and surprised, they wonder what God is going to. They know, somehow, things will work out.
For myself back then, I found renewed hope and encouragement in Proverbs, where Solomon said, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (16:9). I discovered that even in the midst of unemployment, I could see the hand of God at work in my life.
If you are facing unemployment, push through the pain and grief. Don’t give up. There’s a job out there for you, but you have to find it. And as you deal with emotion, you survive. You think you won’t, but you do. Life goes on. Don’t give up because you can make it! You really can.