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While some ex-Pfizer scientists turn to the familiar, others seek something new

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2010 -  After nearly 20 years as a research scientist in St. Louis, Gina Jerome is out of the laboratory and in a strange new world of transition.

Jerome is one of 600 scientists laid off by Pfizer since January, as part of a companywide reorganization announced last year. Like many of her former colleagues, Jerome, 49, is seriously weighing options as she plans a future that could include a path away from the research industry.

"I'm still in the process of deciding what I'm going to do. I'm thinking about going back to school. Maybe health care," said Jerome who wants to stay in St. Louis because of family ties. "I'm still a 'sciencey' kind of person. Given the local economy here, I'm not sure what I can find so I'm leaving my options open."

Jerome, who left Pfizer in April, is taking advantage of networking and career transition services paid for by her former employer that she hopes will help her find the right niche for her goals and talents.

"If I'm going to make a change, I want it to be in something I'm going to enjoy. I want to feel like I'm doing something good, that I'm feeling fulfilled," Jerome said. "I know that no job is 100 percent happy, but I have the luxury to have a little time to figure out if I want a change, and what that will be."

She acknowledges that starting over at this point of her life gives her pause.

"But I think that because I have that many years under my belt I have a better idea of how to get where I want to be, understanding that it's not going to be a straight path sometimes," Jerome said. "I have more maturity to be able to handle things better, perhaps, than if I had been younger. Also, having been with the company that much longer, your severance package was based on how long you'd been there. The cushion helps."

Through her networking experiences, Jerome said she has learned about different possibilities that she might have never considered. But before she commits to additional training or certification, she would like to arrange some job shadowing experiences.

"That's the only way I'm really going to figure out if I want to commit time, money and effort into changing careers," she said.

Jerome said it's been emotional, leaving colleagues and a research career that began with Monsanto and survived succeeding corporate incarnations.

"The paychecks said many different things over the years," she said.

She tries not to dwell on the past by focusing on what lies ahead.

"I don't believe in wasting a lot of time on the past," she said. "The past is the past, and that's not going to help you. You take what you've learned, and you try to move forward. Sometimes that's not the easiest thing to do, but that's what you try to do. People have various feelings about losing a job and you have to acknowledge them and you have to go through the processes. It's kind of like a death; you're grieving. You need to get through to the other end as well as you can."

Getting from here to there

Six months from now, Jerome said she wants to be in either a new job or in school preparing for a new field.

Jerome said it's helped to attend classes on resume writing and career fairs and other networking opportunities arranged by Right Management, a business-to-business career and talent management firm hired by Pfizer.

The company has been working with about 70 percent of the scientists involved in the latest Pfizer layoffs, said Cyd Dodson, Right Management's vice president of career consulting and services. Based on feedback, Dodson knows that at least 8 percent of her clients have already found new employment, but she believes the number is actually larger because they often don't keep in touch after landing a new job.

Dodson said the Pfizer contract provides for her company to help clients -- she calls them "candidates" -- for as long as they need it.

An important first step is self-assessment, which helps displaced workers determine how their skills can translate into other fields, she said. The company also partners with other local career transition programs, such as those offered by the RCGA's "Bounce Back St. Louis" program and the St. Patrick Center's "Go! Network."

"We make a real point to look at all the resources," Dodson said. "Locally, we have a wonderful relationship with our RCGA and with academia, as well as our health-care institutions.''

The company is putting together a virtual job fair specifically for ex-Pfizer scientists, Dodson said

"There is a buzz about our scientists and about our local intelligent workforce that is in transition," she said.

Dodson said that to help these displaced researchers it is important to understand the role they played in scientific discovery: They worked to create drugs that many people depend on.

"These are real difference-makers in our world," Dodson said.

At the same time, their transition can be tough because of limited job opportunities in scientific research -- and some of their knowledge and experience is proprietary and can't be carried over to new companies, she said. And, salaries at other companies often don't match Pfizer's compensation package.

Jerome said that meeting former colleagues for lunch or at networking events has been helpful.

"When you've worked with people for a long time, they're friends and family, and it's just good to meet up and see what's going on with them and to be a support group," she said.

She adds that it's also helpful to hear different perspectives on opportunities -- who got a job where -- and what others are thinking about trying.

"It's funny how the cliches always end up ringing true, as much as you hate to admit it," Jerome said. "But get up and take that shower in the morning and get dressed and get out and have your day planned out. It makes a difference."

On the job at another local laboratory

Becky Hood, a former senior scientist at Pfizer, is already back in the laboratory -- at the Millipore Corp.'s St. Charles location.

After seeing some colleagues laid off in January 2009, Hood, 54, said she was already considering her options when Pfizer announced the reorganization last fall. A former Pfizer scientist already working at Millipore told her about an opening.

"I knew this was coming, even before the announcement," Hood said. "There was no doubt in my mind that this was happening so I put my resume together very early and sent it to him."

Hood said that her group always seemed to be involved when Pfizer restructured, and she had watched many good scientists walk out the door. She worked for the company for 13 years.

"You kind of get numb. You almost want to have it over," she said. "Put me out of my misery and let me go on to something else. I'm not complaining, though. Had they let me go in January 2009, I wouldn't have qualified for the pension."

Hood said she enjoys her new job at Millipore and feels it was a good move, even though she makes less than she did at Pfizer.

"I'm very happy doing what I'm doing, and with the severance and the pension, financially, I'll be fine," she said.

The old days are gone

Hood said she doesn't blame Pfizer for reorganizing because the company is doing what it needs to do to survive. But she is concerned that a growing number of companies are outsourcing science jobs overseas.

"Our country keeps saying we need science and math, but the people who are educated in science and math aren't getting jobs or they're losing their jobs. I think it's very depressing. You spend all that time in school, and you're a good scientist," she said.

Hood believes the economy is improving, but she knows that the market remains tough for her former colleagues, who are often competing among themselves for jobs.

"Do I think the economy will ever return to the good old days? I think it's getting better, but I do think the landscape is going to change a lot," she said. "Pensions are going to disappear. And I think we just have to adjust to the fact that it's not the same as it was when we were kids in the '60s."

But Hood says she sees jobs popping up in established laboratories and also in smaller entrepreneurial efforts.

"I feel hopeful. What's the alternative? I would get very depressed if I didn't think it was turning, but I do not think it will ever be the way it used to be," she said.

She said it is a period of adjustment, but believes all will work out.

"We all can adjust to it," Hood said. "There is a shock and then you change your budget or your lifestyle. We all will get by. It's a retraction, but you can adjust."

Hood said she enjoys getting together with former Pfizer colleagues.

"We do lunches. We do movies. We go to dinner," she said. "I thought about moving away because I'm single -- no children -- and have always wanted to live in the South. But having these people around me is nice."

Hood said she isn't even bothered by the news that Millipore is being acquired by Merck, the pharmaceutical and chemical company based in Germany.

"They reassure us that there won't be any site closures," she said. "I think it's fine. Everybody else is nervous, and I'm like, 'Whatever.' This is so old for me. Just tell me what happens."

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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