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Those affected by GST closing reflect on past, plan for future

February 12, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

candiceb@herald-mail.com

WILLIAMSPORT -

The back window of the blue Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck heading down Wesel Boulevard had three stickers on it, two of which commemorated family members. Sandwiched between those was a third sticker that read, "GST AutoLeather burned in hell. Died due to corporate greed. 1894-2005."

It's a harsh sentiment, reflected in the tones and opinions of some of the workers who lost their jobs when the leather plant in Williamsport closed its doors last fall.

Some workers were scared or angry, or both.

Many had worked at the plant for years and planned to retire from GST. When the plant shut down and jobs were moved to Mexico, those who had worked nowhere else had one skill - working with leather in a factory setting - that was not transferable locally.

"It was very devastating for me. Here I am without a job, without a profession," said former GST employee Earl Williams, 56. "You think everything is great and you're just coasting there until retirement and all of the sudden, you have nothing. It was very scary."

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Roger Stone, who at times was the union president at the plant, is writing a book about the demise of the American dream.

After working at the plant for 28 years, Stone's last day was Oct. 6, 2005. He now is a student at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, working toward an associate degree in business management.

He has kept and framed some items from GST, including his last time slip, a copy of his last paycheck, his parking permit, employee badge and a photograph of the 400,000-square-foot plant.

They are tangible reminders of his collapsed dream and reminders of life's possibilities.

"They might have knocked us down, but we are Byron workers and we stood right back up and looked them in the face and said you can't keep us down," said Stone, 55.

The plant opened in the late 19th century as W.D. Byron & Sons.




A first step



For many, the journey of life after GST started with an elevator ride to the fourth floor of the county office building on West Washington Street in Hagerstown, and an exchange of pleasantries with the secretary behind a glass screen at the Western Maryland Consortium.

Nearly 300 former GST workers enrolled in a program or skill training course offered by the consortium, with the most popular program being one for commercial truck driving, said Peter Thomas, executive director of the consortium.

Currently, 159 former GST workers are enrolled in a program, while 126 have finished activities there. Of those, 107 have found jobs, according to data provided by the consortium.

Along with CDL training, skill training is available in a variety of fields, including heating and air conditioning, nursing, management, graphic design, cosmetology, massage therapy and customer service, and for work as an administrative assistant, electrician and in a medical office.

These "feeder programs" are continued at other educational institutions, including Hagerstown Community College.

The consortium, which is federally funded, offers basic education refresher courses and basic computer training.

A 36-hour career development series program is offered, during which participants learn customer service skills, communication skills and interviewing tips, as well as how to look for jobs, create a rsum, keep a job and successfully change careers.

"It's a confidence builder, but it's also giving people those correct skills they need to be competitive," Thomas said.

At the consortium office, several computers are available for job searches, with job-search programs installed.

The consortium provides telephone use, photocopying and stamps.

There are shelves of reference books and - it's important, Thomas said - free coffee.




Frightened and angry



For the most part, Thomas said, GST workers' educational skills were "rusty," and most lacked skills that easily could be transferred to another job.

"I'd say a lot of them were frightened," he said.

They also were angry at the company, angry that they had lost their jobs and that those jobs had been moved to Mexico.

As others do with the stages of death, case managers and others at the consortium helped the employees work through their denial, anger, adjustment and, ultimately, acceptance of the situation.

It's a familiar process to Thomas, who estimated nearly 40 plants have closed in the area since he first started working at the consortium in 1974. He has been its director since 1978.




Moving on



Patricia Wilson is brushing up on her computer skills at the Western Maryland Consortium and enrolled a few weeks ago in Hagerstown Community College's medical office administration and phlebotomy programs.

"I always wanted to be a nurse, but I never got around to it," she said.

Phlebotomy is a program in which people learn how to draw blood.

Wilson, 51, of Williamsport, worked for GST for 16 years and planned to retire from the company. She went to night school in 1984 to receive her high school diploma.

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