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Published: Tuesday, 2/6/2007

Prepare as if next job to be outsourced is yours

Middlebury, Vt., is one of those idyllic New England communities where the outside world seems a million miles away and time seems to stand still.

But the rest of the world invaded in mid-January, when Specialty Filaments went bankrupt and agreed to a court-ordered liquidation, costing the community 175 jobs.

The town of about 8,500 residents was still dealing with the shock of losing one of its biggest employers when Standard Register Co. announced that it will close its Middlebury plant in March, putting 112 more people out of work.

"This is something that is happening across the country, because we now live in a global community and there is so much competition out there," said Linda Stearns, newly retired after 25 years as executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, who had never experienced such rapid-fire pullouts from big companies.

A study called "Middle Class in Turmoil," released last year by the Center for American Progress, noted that just 18.3 percent of middle-class families (defined as those with annual household incomes ranging from $18,500 to $88,030) had accumulated wealth equal to three months' worth of income.

Fewer than one-third of the middle-class families could sustain themselves through a period of joblessness, according to the study, and that was based on 2004 data; the researchers expected the trend to get worse.

And so anyone with a job that could be outsourced, downsized, or simply vaporized needs to look at what happened in Middlebury and say "What would I do if my community - and my job - were next?"

The protocol that financial experts suggest workers follow is fairly simple:

Start by looking at your skills, where else you can work in the community, what other jobs interest you, what kinds of benefits you are eligible for and how you might extend them (in some states, you can get extra weeks of unemployment compensation, for example, by taking training courses to help find a new job).

Advisers suggest that as you look for the next opportunity, tighten up at home.

Although financial planners frequently suggest that families have three months' of income set aside as an emergency fund, most households don't go that far, either because they aren't saving or because they have a lot of the money working in the market or paying off debt rather than earning almost nothing in a savings account waiting for a crisis.

"If you still have a job, even if it's for a few weeks, start negotiating with your credit card issuers to see if you can get a lower rate, telling them you'll cancel their card and move to something better if they can't help," says Peg Eddy of Creative Capital Management in San Diego.

"It may sound odd, but temporarily stopping your participation in the company's retirement plan may help you build up some emergency funds. Calculate your net worth and know what you own and what you owe, and total up your normal expenses for keeping a roof over your head, so that you know the nut you have to crack."

If your plan includes moving and selling a house, don't overestimate the value of your home; in a small community devastated by big layoffs, the housing market could be in for a big surge in supply.

If the job loss is big news around town, be sure to bring your older children into the discussions. Most experts suggest that family talks include not just include how to adjust and cut but also how best to bring in new income.

In some cases, workers find that they can maintain their lives with little disruption, either because they find other jobs in the area or their employer is sold. In Middlebury, the Specialty Filament plant is being sold and will re-open.

"These kinds of closures do happen everywhere, and you will always get the best outcome when you are prepared and can act quickly when you get bad news," said Jamie Stewart, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp.

Charles Jaffe is a senior columnist for Marketwatch



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