PORTLAND – After a few weeks of unemployment, Bob Prescott sat down for a serious talk with his wife.
With his job as a route sales driver for Hostess behind him, Prescott was considering a new career as a truck driver that would take him away from home for a week or more at a time. Were he and his wife, Nora, willing to make that sacrifice?
The answer was yes.
Now, two months after Prescott lost his job when Hostess shuttered its Biddeford bakery, he has passed his permit test and is gearing up to start a truck driving course this week. When he’s done, he’ll be certified to drive the largest trucks on the road. He expects to be away from home for a week at a time if he lands a job with one of the companies that recruit from driving schools.
“We have said this career change and getting certified for a license will take us in a different direction in our personal lives,” Prescott said.
Prescott, 59, of Portland is among the 370 employees in Biddeford who lost their jobs when Hostess went out of business, a week into a nationwide strike. Hostess received final bankruptcy court approval Nov. 21 to close 33 bakeries, putting 15,000 U.S. employees out of work, including 500 in Maine. Another 3,200 will be unemployed nationally after the company finishes closing this year.
While former Hostess employees look for work and retrain for new careers, some are also keeping an eye on the sale of Hostess’ various food brands to other companies in hopes that the Biddeford bakery will reopen.
Flowers Foods signed an agreement in January to buy the Biddeford plant as part of its effort to acquire some of Hostess’ assets. The Georgia-based company placed two bids, totaling $390 million, to buy six of Hostess’ bread brands — including Wonder Bread and Beefsteak — as well as 20 bakeries and 38 distribution centers. The Biddeford plant is among the 20 bakeries.
Flowers’ bid will be a starting point for an auction in March.
Hostess announced last week that it had chosen a joint offer from Apollo Global Management and C. Dean Metropoulos & Co. as the lead bid for Twinkies and other cake brands. Apollo and Metropoulos offered as much as $410 million for the Hostess snack-cake business, five bakeries and equipment.
Sue Tapley, a former bakery worker from Scarborough, is keeping a close eye on the bankruptcy process. She checks online every day, not only for open job listings but also for any mention of Hostess in the news.
“You could stay on this all day,” Tapley said recently as she scrolled through an online list of stories about Hostess. “You can read it and you get your hopes up, but then it says (the sale) is subject to this and subject to that. I would like to work, but I would love to go back to the bakery. I’m kind of hoping that will work out.”
But Tapley isn’t banking on it.
While she waits for news about the fate of the Biddeford bakery, Tapley is focusing on a job search that is more complex than she thought it would be.
Tapley, 58, was four years away from retiring when she lost her job as a mixer. She had worked at Hostess for 14 years, the first time in years she worked only one full-time job. Her current job search marks the first time she has created a resume, searched the Internet for job listings and filled out online applications. She spends four hours on the search each day.
So far Tapley has seen lots of listings for part-time or temporary jobs, most requiring on-the-job experience she doesn’t have. She is hesitant to retrain for a new career so close to retirement, but she has already applied for about 25 jobs with no response.
“Who would hire me? Without experience and at my age, they’re not going to train me,” she said. “But I would think my age would be a benefit to them. I think the work ethic of someone who is older is a lot better than someone who is really young.”
Yet Tapley isn’t giving up hope she’ll be able to find a job that suits her. She started her job search by going to the state Department of Labor CareerCenter in Portland, where former Hostess workers can take resume writing classes and other workshops. She has gone back for help with customizing her resume.
When Tapley first applied at JJ Nissen — before Hostess bought the company — she “just walked into the (human resources) office and filled out an application. They called you back if you got the job,” she said.
FACING MAJOR CHANGES
Mike Roland, manager of the CareerCenter in Portland, said it is not uncommon for people like Tapley, who have worked in the same job for decades, to find their skills need to be upgraded, particularly with regard to technology. They also face a new world of digital job searches where they don’t meet potential employers face to face, he said.
“The problem they face is partly the changed nature of looking for a job, but also partly the changed nature of work,” he said. “A worker who came up through JJ Nissen in Portland, moved to Biddeford and now has to find work is very likely to need computer skills or skills in advanced production methods in order to be competitive.”
The CareerCenters can help people navigate the unemployment system, learn how to search databases for jobs and direct them to retraining and educational opportunities funded by the Workforce Investment Act.
About 40 former Hostess workers have gone to the CareerCenter in Portland, while another 43 have taken advantage of services at the York County CareerCenter in Springvale. Last month, 64 former Hostess workers went to the Goodwill Workforce Solutions Center in Biddeford for assistance.
Roland said the CareerCenters also try to connect with laid-off people by hiring peer-support workers who used to work at the company. The three Hostess employees hired as peer-support workers stay in touch with their former co-workers and often forge one-on-one connections that help people as they navigate through a difficult time in their lives, Roland said.
“It’s a fairly traumatic experience. It’s equivalent to the loss of a family member or a divorce or other life-changing circumstances,” he said. “It hits people hard to lose a job they’ve had for a long time.”
NOT WAITING AROUND
Like Tapley and Prescott, Michael Bourgault of Saco was hit hard when he lost his job as a scaler and mixer in the bakery. At 54, he finds himself without work for the first time in his adult life.
Two months after he picketed with the bakers union at Hostess plants in Maine and Philadelphia, Bourgault now spends his day cleaning the house, cooking dinner and scouring newspapers and the Internet for jobs. He’s also dedicated hours to learning how to use a computer — starting with how to turn it on. He created a resume with help from the CareerCenter in Portland.
“It’s a learning process,” he said. “Everything is different today.”
Bourgault, a military veteran, has applied for about 30 jobs, but so far has had no response.
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “Twenty-five years ago you’d buy the Sunday paper and open it to see eight or 10 pages of jobs. Now you buy it and under ‘general help,’ there’s maybe 10 jobs. They are the same jobs that have been there forever.”
Many jobs are part time or aren’t in southern Maine, Bourgault said.
“It doesn’t really do you any good to apply for a job in Bangor that doesn’t pay very well,” he said. “After you bought gas and the toll for the turnpike, you’d be working for nothing.”
While he remains hopeful the Biddeford bakery will reopen and a new company will rehire laid-off workers, Bourgault is not waiting for that to happen. He has applied for retraining through a program for veterans, but is still waiting to hear back about what opportunities are available. That could include going to community college.
“Just because I applied for it doesn’t for sure mean I’m going to do it,” he said. “I just have to take the first step.”
GRATEFUL FOR CHANCE TO RETRAIN
Prescott, the former route sales driver, decided to take his first step into a new career about a month into unemployment. He had spent enough time looking online for jobs to know he’d need to train for another career to make enough to give him and his wife the retirement they look forward to.
For now, his wife works extra hours in coffee shops at Maine Medical Center and they have put vacations on hold. They don’t carry any debt and so far have avoided dipping into their savings. Nora Prescott cashed in some vacation time to fill the couple’s backup oil tank to make sure they would have heat through the winter.
After meeting with the CareerCenter and Goodwill Workforce Industries, Prescott decided to pursue a commercial driver’s license that will allow him to drive semi trucks — the type of jobs he sees openings for. His $4,000 training course is paid for through Goodwill Workforce Industries.
“I’ve always enjoyed driving. It’s always been a fun thing,” he said. “I don’t have a doubt I’ll like it.”
This week, Prescott will start 170 hours of schooling with ProDrive in Westbrook. Eighty of those hours will be behind the wheel of a truck.
If Prescott is hired right out of driving school, it will likely be for an out-of-state route that will take him away from home. He said he’s confident the sacrifice of being away from his family will be worth it during his retirement years.
Prescott said he is both excited and grateful for the opportunity to retrain for a new career.
“How could I not be grateful for having this opportunity? My wife is willing to make these personal sacrifices,” he said. “I can’t be more thankful.”
Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: