Sean O'Donnell, Times-Mail

sodonnell@tmnews.com

BEDFORD - Ford Motor Co. announced cuts in its North American production Friday, as part of its efforts in a turnaround. But some employees at Bedford's Visteon Automotive Systems parts division, which manufactures parts largely for Ford cars and has laid off around 120 employees since November, have had their lives turned around already.

Scott Sowder, 35, of Bloomington knew he was only a few years from being laid off from his position as a machine operator at Visteon, so he took advantage of an offered buyout.

"Basically," Sowder said, "it was the scare of the uncertain future, knowing that a layoff was impending but not knowing."

Sowder was the 49th out of an allowed 50 employees to take the buyout, which included a $25,000 lump sum and legally ending all ties to Visteon Corp.

"I wasn't glad (about taking the buyout) at first," he said. "I was leaving because of an unsure future, but I was jumping into an unsure future."

The unsure future Sowder landed in first was as an appraiser in Evansville. But the cost of the commute and the potential cost of relocating were not worth the pay.

Now, he works as a corrections officer at Plainfield State prison.

"It's a stable career," Sowder said. "It's less pay than I was making at Visteon. But I liked the stability it offered."

Besides the stability, some of the benefits are better. The prison offers a better retirement plan (matching 401k), and he gets reimbursement and loan deferment for going back to school for his bachelor's degree.

And though Sowder's life seems to be on a more stable path, the stability doesn't ease all of his fears.

"I am still fearful for the many friends I left behind (at Visteon). The writing is pretty much on the wall: The future looks bleak for Visteon in the United States."

'Hard to be positive'

According to Scott Barnes, plant manager at Visteon since May 2005, conditions at the plant will continue to mirror the auto industry in general, "which is obviously not good."

"The future of the plant is very much up in the air," Barnes said, "which reflects the whole automotive industry. As we watch Ford's market share slip and we watch the financial misfortunes of Ford, it doesn't fare well with us."

Barnes is quick to emphasize the relationship between the industry and the plant.

"It's not an issue of performance or specific lack of results here at the plant," he said, "but more a fact that we have more capacity than we need. Since we don't supply to the one aspect of growth in North America - which is the Japanese transplant - the future for growth is very very tenuous.

"What we're preparing our people for is a general downsizing as our customer base downsizes and we're trying to be as up front as we can."

"I'm sad to see our industry change like it is," said Jamie Harris, executive director of Bedford Urban Enterprise Association, "but kind of like the phoenix coming out of the ashes, something new and promising will come out of this. We have to position ourselves for diversification."

Harris said in the last three years, $96 million was invested in the new power plant between Mitchell and Bedford, around $15 million was invested in Lowe's, and about $27 million went into the new Wal-Mart Supercenter that opened Wednesday. He added that it is necessary to have jobs at all levels for the sake of upward mobility.

But as Bedford Mayor Joe Klumpp said of the new service and retail jobs, "Those aren't Powertrain- or Visteon-type jobs."

And that is something Morgan Lee, a Visteon employee, understands. "Even though Lowe's and this new Wal-Mart Supercenter are being built," Lee said, "you've got to look at these people at Visteon who have made good money. We've gone from making $14 to $18 an hour, and you're talking about taking that away from people ... who have based their bills and everything they're living for around that.

"What would you do if they cut your pay $5 an hour?"

Klumpp said he hopes opportunities afforded by the new casino and resort in Orange County will benefit Bedford residents.

While Klumpp hopes the new interstate will bring along new industry and employment opportunities that might offset Visteon's hardships, he keeps his optimism in check.

"It's hard to be positive."

A bit of a blessing

Some irony for those laid off from Visteon is that, while some of their job loss is because of work going out of the country, that fact has made them eligible for Trade Adjustment Assistance.

"Clearly that is a reason a lot of our business is going down," Barnes said, "because a lot of the work is going off shore."

Steve Gault, local office manager at WorkOne Bedford explained: "It's a federal program that provides assistance to workers whose jobs have been affected by foreign trade policy. If they lose jobs to foreign trade or shifts in production, then petitions can be filed with the (U.S.) Department of Labor."

Visteon spokesman Jim Fisher said the company has worked with IUE-CWA Local 919 to apply for the TAA and notify the employees "as communications are received."

Somewhere along the line, though, communications became confused.

"We had no idea that Visteon wasn't paying for our school until we got into ... class," said Missy Lloyd, 37, Bedford. Lloyd, who was laid off April 3, is now going to Ivy Tech through TAA for office administration in the medical field.

Tammy Burgess, 43, Bedford, said she and other laid off workers "were told that we were going to be able to pick from a variety of programs, but the government will only provide for a two-year program."

But according to Gault, all workers eligible for TAA get training for up to two years and book and tuition costs beyond whatever financial aid is available. He said the idea of TAA is that the person trains for skilled jobs that are in demand in the area and the field the person trains in gives them a wage comparable to what they were making.

"It doesn't always happen," he said, "but often times it does."

While unemployment claims are generally 26 weeks, enrollment in TAA extends unemployment benefits for two years.

Because of the two-year limit, some career opportunities are not available to the laid off workers. Lloyd's major is her third since first applying. But prerequisite classes and tests limited her choices until she finally chose medical office administration.

Another stipulation of the program that workers learned is the school or training facility has to be within 50 miles of their home.

TAA Petitions Coordinator for the Indiana Department of Workforce Development Karen Rench explained, "The reason is that the department of labor says that we must pay federal mileage rates to any individual who travels over 50 miles. So the cost of paying that mileage usually exceeds the cost of the training. If we used up those funds for just mileage for someone to go to school, we don't feel like that would be a good use of funds."

After someone is enrolled in TAA, Gault said they must keep in contact monthly with WorkOne, which keeps track of their school work.

"Once they've completed their training program," he said, "we will help place them if they haven't already been placed prior to graduation."

Rench said her office travels to conduct orientations for the program, and did the Visteon orientations at the WorkOne center in Bedford in February and April.

Despite any initial confusion, former Visteon workers are back in school.

"Almost everyone I got laid off with is going to school," Lloyd said.

Burgess, who was also laid off April 3, now goes to school for an early childhood education degree. She said five of the eight people in her algebra class are from Visteon.

And even though she's in good company, she said, "It was a little scary going back, being 25 years out (of school). I didn't know what to expect, I guess.

"Getting laid off has been a little bit of a blessing because it's giving me an opportunity to sit back and see what I'm going to do now. Financially, it's a little rough. ..." But, she added, "being home with the kids has been a blessing. It's not all bad. It's not what I would have like right at this time, but it happened, so we're just working through it.

"I enjoyed working at Visteon, I really did."

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