At first glance, the job interviews under way in a small stucco building on the edge of the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Plant here seem rather humdrum.
Prospective applicants enter a room and are greeted by a management representative who has a file folder with the customary background information. But there the normal procedures end.
The persons conducting the interviews never will hire a single candidate because the videotaped conversations are merely simulations.
The interviews are conducted and recorded so workers can see their own performances. They are just one element in a job-search program that Brown & Williamson and the local unions established in February 1984 when the company announced that it would close the plant at the end of this year. The job-search center is full of employment literature and equipment, including a phone bank with WATS lines to enable employes to get a head start in seeking new positions.
"We had to close the plant for good reasons," explained Carroll H. Teague, a Brown & Williamson vice president for human resources, "but we also felt a continuing obligation. When you think of the contributions that employes have made over the years, there is an obligation and a responsibility."
The bittersweet scent of tobacco hanging in the air over the Petersburg facility is a constant reminder that this plant has produced millions of cigarettes in 58 years and that it still employs just over 1,000 workers. Kools, Viceroy and Bugler tobacco are a few of the brands that are manufactured by Brown & Williamson, which remains the nation's number three cigarette maker, despite the drop in its market share in recent years and the consumer criticism that has plagued the cigarette industry.
The job search center is only one part of a multifaceted effort that Brown & Williamson has launched with a $284,000 contribution to assist its employes in the face of the plant's closing. At least $100,000 of these funds are allocated for a retraining program that is being run by the local South Central Private Industry Council (PIC), which is backed by another $359,000 grant from the federal government's Joint Training Partnership Act (JTPA). Brown & Williamson has pledged another $120,000 to underwrite a community task force that is examining ways in which the company's property can be utilized by local businesses and new firms when the plant closes.
Although these programs still are in their early stages, they have earned high marks from a large number of employes, union representatives, community leaders and outside experts concerned with dislocated workers. Employes and union leaders have commented that the job-search efforts have done much to boost their confidence about job hunting.
Further, Bossie Bonner, a soft-spoken man who heads the local tobacco workers union that represents the majority of the company's employes, said that "there are a lot of plants closing and giving their people nothing. You can't downplay what our company is doing. Just pull all their business out and leave in the middle of the night seemed wrong to them."
The mayor of Petersburg, Florence Farley, who also heads the psychology department at Virginia State University, said he is "favorably impressed with Brown & Williamson's effort to get a task force together and leave the city as painlessly as possible. Many other concerns have just walked away and left their facilities. So many communities have just been left with big empty buildings and open spaces."
More and more companies are facing similar human problems as they close plants because of foreign competition, poor productivity or simply old age.
And, according to William Batt Jr., an adviser on the quality of work life for the Department of Labor, a growing number of these companies are seeking to ease the pain of plant closings for their workers. But to date, few have responded with such far-reaching measures as Brown & Williamson.
When Brown & Williamson decided to close the Petersburg plant, it immediately set in motion plans to ease the transition for its work force. A dislocated workers committee was formed early on, composed of management and union representatives to make recommendations about the job search program.
The committee promptly hired an outside consultant, the Potomac Institute for Economic Research, that was experienced in organizing job placement.
"The overwhelming fact about dislocated workers is that they are skilled and dependable," said Brad Schiller, who runs the Potomac Institute. "Skilled workers have the best shot in high unemployment areas."
The plans that Potomac Institute developed are ambitious, consisting of three phases. Phase I, which 327 workers have completed, is essentially a testing and cataloging system to make workers more aware of their own skills and their job prospects. Phase I runs 15 hours, spread over five afternoons, and also provides workers some instruction in re'sume' and letter writing.
The second phase teaches employes many of the techniques, such as telephone solicitation and interview skills, that they will need when applying for jobs.
The third phase will begin when workers actually are laid off, which is expected to start in early October.
Employes who have participated in the job-search courses say they now have a better appreciation of their own talent.
"This program lets you know you've got marketable skills," said Maynard Skelton, a forklift operator who has been working at the plant for 19 years. Skelton also is taking electronics courses at a local community college and is thinking of starting his own electronics business eventually.
Closely related to the job-search program are the retraining efforts that the company also launched shortly after it announced the plant's closure. The day-to-day operation of the retraining courses is being handled by Elaine Carpenter, a representative of the local private industry council, which is charged with administering the $359,000 grant under the Joint Training Partnership Act.
Carpenter said that about 225 workers have started some retraining courses and that 500 employes eventually will have an opportunity to take classes at local colleges in fields that include office procedures, word processing, auto repair, air conditioning, refrigeration, electronics and truck driving. The criteria for matching the employes and their courses is that the skill be marketable with a good chance of obtaining a job after retraining, because JTPA has a target of finding jobs for 65 percent of the workers it retrains, according to Carpenter.
Jerry Moody, a wiry man with a well-kept beard, who has worked in the casing and blending department for 20 years, now is enrolled at nearby John Tyler Community College where he is taking air conditioning and refrigeration courses at night. Moody said he would like to start his own business eventually, but for now he enjoys taking courses with other workers because "it's like a family. They tell us we are more eager than kids in high school. . . . I feel bad for anybody who hasn't taken it. It may affect the rest of your life."
Barbara Mayfield, who has worked at the plant for 19 years, is enrolled in office procedures and bookkeeping classes at Commonwealth College as well as the job-search program. She says the classes and program have "made me feel confident that I can, and will, succeed. Some of us felt that we were too old, but you're never too old."
At least a dozen employes, including Zenobia Harvell, an instructor in the job-search program, already have obtained new jobs, some of them with the help of the program. Still, some workers remain shy or reluctant to take courses because they never finished high school, according to Carpenter. And some workers simply refuse to believe that the plant that has sustained them for so long ever will close, she said.
Both programs have not been without some hitches. Some workers complain that the job-search and retraining measures were well-conceived, but that the implementation and follow-through have been marred by Brown & Williamson calling back laid-off workers several times, interrupting the continuity of both programs. For its part, Brown & Williamson says that the callbacks were not planned but were necessitated because some equipment for the newer Macon plant was slow in arriving.
Still another component of the Brown & Williamson effort has been its community task force that was set up to seek uses for the plant's facilities after they are closed. In late August, the task force hired a New York consulting firm, Security Pacific Realty Advisory Services, to develop a marketing plan for attracting new businesses to the Petersburg area.
As part of this initiative, Brown & Williamson has pledged to give the city substantial properties if the city can obtain an Economic Development Administration grant of $1 million. The city has applied for the grant and agreed to match it with $333,000. Final word is expected later this month.
Farley, who serves on the task force, believes that the Brown & Williamson facilities could spur the growth of small businesses -- which he considers a key to successful economic development in Petersburg.
"We should be looking for as much diversity as possible," Farley said. "I'm hopeful that some employes will be able to start new businesses for themselves. The work force is like the buildings to me -- well developed and talented. . . . We're beginning to understand that there won't be just one company like General Motors Corp.'s new Saturn plant that will come in. I think it makes for a sounder community to have more diversity."
Further, Farley noted that two local companies that are among the 10 largest employers in Petersburg already have made tentative plans to move their operations to the Brown & Williamson grounds where they will benefit from more modern facilities.
It is too early to predict just how successful the Brown & Williamson programs will be in helping employes find new jobs. But Brown & Williamson has sparked an optimistic mood that seems contagious.
William Batt Jr. of the Department of Labor, who has worked closely with Brown & Williamson management in making presentations to a half-dozen states interested in creating similar programs for dislocated workers, said that the company is in the forefront of a growing movement, fueled by altruism and enlightened self interest.
"It's part of a philosophy that people are important," Batt said. "After years of allegiance and support, you can't just dump them. The best run companies now see this."