Originally created 08/21/05

Layoffs at SRS lead employees to new work

Gwen Watts was no secretary. Even when pulling clerical duty and filing paperwork at Savannah River Site.

She called herself an "office administrator" instead - two words that still never felt right for this woman with an MBA and hopes for promotion.

"My potential was greater than where I was," Ms. Watts said.

Instead of a promotion, she got laid off in March.

Since then, Ms. Watts has turned her part-time business, The Marketable Skills Training Center in Holly Hills Plaza on Peach Orchard Road, into a full-time venture.

She is one of many former and current SRS employees who have considered starting their own businesses, said Bernard Girouard, a counselor for Aiken's chapter of the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Hundreds of SRS employees gathered at the site to listen to SCORE counselors give tips for starting a business in the weeks before Westinghouse Savannah River Co. laid off 400 employees in July and said it might cut up to 800 jobs next year.

The large turnout bumped the Aiken chapter into the top 10 fastest-growing SCORE chapters in the nation, Mr. Girouard said. Of the 400 who visited the meeting, about 20 have followed up for serious discussions, he said.

SRS employees finding new careers in small business is nothing new. In the 1990s, many of those laid off pursued startup businesses.

About 25,000 people worked at SRS during its peak employment in the 1990s. That number is now at about 11,000.

With more layoffs come more entrepreneurs - many college educated and equipped with severance packages - to the Augusta area market.

Those laid off are given a 60-day notice and are paid for the following 60 days, although they do not work, said Will Callicot, the spokesman for Westinghouse. They also receive a week of pay for every year of service, capped at 26 weeks. People who voluntarily left the company in the spring received the same incentive, he said.

With more impending layoffs at the Department of Energy-owned nuclear facility, Ms. Watts advises others not to wait until it's too late.

"I knew I was going to be laid off, so I started preparing early," the 53-year-old Hephzibah resident said.

Ms. Watts now earns a living teaching others how to use a computer, speak in public and write effectively.

She started the business four years ago, teaching classes at night after getting off work at SRS.

Since she started the training center, every dollar earned has gone back into her business, Ms. Watts said.

Rip Shaffer, a former senior environmental scientist for the Department of Energy, opted for early retirement in January and now operates a real estate auction business.

Mr. Shaffer said he is grateful for his years at SRS - he earned an MBA and worked part time selling real estate while working there - but became bored with the ever-decreasing workload.

"It was the best prison cell in the world, but it was still a prison cell," he said.

The Evans resident traded in an $86,000 a year salary for something he is passionate about: auctioneering.

Last month, the owner of Homeland Auction and Realty conducted his first auction and even brought along some of his SRS friends, who served as "ringmen." They brought in the bids as Mr. Shaffer used tongue-wagging auctioneer-speak.

"I just like being on my own and being free," he said. "It's just a wonderful feeling."

It takes at least three years of operation before a business owner can see whether it was a success, Mr. Girouard said. The first step is to create a business plan, which Mr. Girouard and other SCORE volunteers in Aiken and Augusta can help budding entrepreneurs develop, free of charge.

They might not like everything the counselors have to say, however. Mr. Girouard makes it clear that many small businesses fizzle during the first few years.

Mr. Girouard said that is something former SRS workers should weigh heavily before investing all the money the job provided them with.

"You have that dream, and it can be expanded into a successful business," Mr. Girouard said. "On the other hand, you don't want that dream to become a nightmare."

Ronnie Perry left SRS on his own in July 2004 without early retirement or a layoff. He, however, already had a plan.

Ten years ago, Mr. Perry started a company called Life Alarm Services Inc. He provides people with a panic button that is a direct line to help in case of emergency. It's similar to the one in the TV commercials depicting a woman who has fallen and can't get up.

After the night-shift security detail at SRS, Mr. Perry would spend the early-morning hours working on his business, which has become profitable beyond what he was earning at SRS.

Mr. Perry said that his job at SRS was a good one but that serving those in need is more gratifying. He doesn't regret SRS, but he does know the time served by heart.

"Fifteen months, four months, four hours," Mr. Perry rattled off with a smile.

His wife, Jacqui, was among the clerical staffers who were terminated.

"It's hard when you get laid off," he said. "You still have a mortgage, a family, you still need food to eat and you're still using the utilities. So many people wait until the last minute."

Leaders at Westinghouse don't want former employees thrust back into the job market without help, Human Resources Manager Andy Kaminsky said. The company created a career opportunity center before the most recent round of layoffs that helps displaced workers find a new job.

Not all SRS employees looking for a second career create new companies. Former SRS engineer Giri Venkatraman earned his real estate sales and brokers license and now works for Mehbohm Realtors. If he chose to, he could start a real estate company.

Mr. Venkatraman said he took early retirement in 2001 after "seeing the writing on the wall." Selling houses to smiling faces is a change from SRS, where many people just did their time and discussed impending layoffs, he said.

"They were always talking about who is going to be next," he said.

Ms. Watts said she has no ill feeling for her time spent at Savannah River Site.

"SRS was just like a steppingstone for what the Lord has in store me," she said. "I was blessed to be there, but even more blessed to be away from there."

Reach Tony Lombardo at (706) 823-3227 or tony.lombardo@augustachronicle.com.

Get help

The Service Corps of Retired Executives offers free small-business counseling. - Augusta office: (706) 793-9998 - Aiken office: (803) 641-1111


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