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Economy & Business

Job talk: A year after his layoff, a former Pfizer worker shares thoughts on the 600 to follow

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2009 - As Gov. Jay Nixon was introducing his plan to create high-tech jobs in Missouri on Wednesday, Bill Salsgiver -- a former senior scientist at Pfizer who was laid off 11 months ago -- was grading papers from his microbiology students at the Meramec campus of St. Louis Community College.

Though his pay as a part-time adjunct professor isn't on the same Periodical Table as his old Pfizer salary, Salsgiver, 57, is enthusiastic about his new job, which comes with these priceless perks: He loves teaching, and he is excited about sharing his real-world experience as a working scientist.

"I like to think that they're getting something from me as an instructor that they might not get from another instructor because of the experience I've had,'' Salsgiver said. "I've had an absolute blast teaching, and they seem to appreciate it.''

Lately, Salsgiver has taken on another duty: offering encouragement to former colleagues at Pfizer who will be laid off early in the new year. The New York-based pharmaceutical giant is cutting 600 of its 1,000 jobs in St. Louis as part of a companywide restructuring, followings its recent acquisition of Wyeth. Most of the St. Louis jobs will move to Cambridge, Mass.

The fact is, layoffs -- the company calls them "waves" -- had been coming regularly since 2003 when Pfizer acquired Pharmacia, Salsgiver said. That company was formed in 2000 when Monsanto merged its pharmaceutical operations with Pharmacia; Salsgiver joined Monsanto in 1985.

Before the St. Louis tsunami, Pfizer had already closed most of its Midwestern operations -- in Chicago and Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo, Mich. -- while maintaining a large presence on the east and west coasts.

"Every 12 to 18 months, they had a round of layoffs,'' Salsgiver said. "It was rather disheartening, and it seemed like a very unsettled environment ever since Pfizer took over the organization. We always felt like we were walking on eggshells, waiting for the next shoe to drop.''

Salsgiver said about 50 people were laid off in his "wave" at the end of January 2009 -- all bright and top-notch people.

"As I looked around the room at those of us who got laid off at that point in time, I said to myself, 'Wow, this would be a really good group of people to start a pharmaceutical company with. Why are these people getting laid off and not somebody else?' There didn't seem to be rhyme or reason as to who was chosen to go," he said.

A soft landing in hard times

Salsgiver hastens to credit Pfizer for providing what he calls a "soft landing" for its laid-off employees, including lump sum payouts based on years of service.

"As bad as some of my opinions about Pfizer are, they really took tremendously good care of us when they let us go,'' he said. "We had a tremendous severance package, and it enabled us to land very softly. You could spend a reasonably long time getting yourself mentally to where you figure out what's next.''

Salsgiver, whose wife is employed, said they used the lump sum to pay off major expenses, including their mortgage, and it helped that their two sons are grown and out of college. The severance package also allowed for something else: He has been able to take a dream job at a lower rate of pay, as he ages closer to real retirement.

But, he adds, what worked for him won't necessarily work for his colleagues.

"Some people are close enough to retirement that they really just want to limp along,'' he said. "Some people who are young and have young kids, they've got to find something else to do. If they like really like science, they want to stay in science. Some people really want to stay in St. Louis and are willing to change careers to stay in St. Louis.''

As happy as Salsgiver is in his new field, economists would lump him with a growing number of American workers who are classified as "underemployed." These include former full-time workers who are now employed part-time, though not by choice, and those who are working at jobs below their experience or education level. When added to the numbers of unemployed Americans, the underemployed -- plus, the "discouraged" workers who have stopped looking for jobs -- drive the nation's 10.0 percent unemployment rate to 17.2 percent.

A new world order

Nixon's new legislative plan, called the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act, would earmark a portion of the tax growth -- up to $30 million a year -- from science and technology companies already operating in the state to attract similar companies.

The goal of such plans is to create the very kinds of jobs that Pfizer is eliminating. In the here and now, though, jobs at comparable levels of compensation are scarce and being laid off will require lifestyle adjustments for workers, no matter how soft the landing.

"Their life has grown into the income that we were making -- we got paid very well,'' Salsgiver said.

Salsgiver, who had been involved in Pfizer's education outreach programs, already had a connection to the faculty at Meramec, which eventually led to the offer in May to teach part time at the college. Before landing that job, he estimates that he applied for more than 50 jobs at area universities and other companies.

"I got absolutely zero contacts, phone calls, interviews -- nothing. I was just astounded at that. I know I'm overqualified for some of the introductory level stuff, but I would have thought somebody would have thought, 'Here's someone with all of this experience, let's give him a shot,' '' he said.

Salsgiver believes that job creation in his industry is difficult for a number of reasons, including the fact that the general public has little understanding of what it takes -- in brain power, equipment, funding -- to create new pharmaceuticals. And, he adds, the current trend is for large companies, such as Pfizer, to continue to consolidate U.S. operations -- and, in some cases, to send them offshore to facilities in India and China.

"They always talk about small business being the driver of the new job opportunities, but it just doesn't seem as though that is very well-oiled right now,'' Salsgiver said. "Somebody who's thinking about that needs to figure out what you need to do to enable small businesses to get up and get going. It's expensive to discover pharmaceuticals and if they don't allow that compensation for intellectual property, then they won't be invented here anymore.''

Salsgiver said he hopes that other area companies and universities will recognize that there is a "critical mass" of former Pfizer scientists who want to stay in the St. Louis region. If they were thinking about expanding, he suggests that now would be a good time to think outside the box and take advantage of this newly available talent pool.

Time to make some new "good old days"

Monsanto had a connection to St. Louis, but Pfizer did not, Salsgiver said, and the working environment had changed from what he refers to as "the good old days'' before the acquisitions.

"It just wasn't fun anymore,'' he said. "But had Pfizer not laid me off, I would still be there and would still be unhappy because I never would have had the wherewithal or the guts -- or whatever -- to just sever my ties and go teach. You're making too much money to walk away from it cavalierly. And I wasn't that unhappy; it just wasn't that much fun.''

Salsgiver advises colleagues facing layoffs not to dwell on the past for long, but to use their severance packages as an opportunity to reflect on what they really want to do next. At Pfizer recently to attend a friend's award ceremony, he offered hugs and reassurance to many who had just gotten their lay-off notices.

"They all wanted to talk to me: How are you doing? How do you like it? How is it out there?" he said. "Part of my being there was a service, showing them that I had a smile on my face. And I would argue that I'm at a better place than I was at the end there."

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