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Monday Memories -Back in the Real World #6: Another Power Station

If you saw Back in the Real World #5 before I changed it, you need to know that I was made redundant (again) shortly before my birthday in autumn 1994.

One place I went to for an interview was McCain Potato Products at Scarborough. That would have been an interesting job, had I got it. One day in December I got a call from a firm in Sheffield. They were very interested by my CV and invited me for interview. The company was run by two brothers, one who had designed the firm’s unique product and was responsible for sales and tendering, the other in charge of production and installation. The product was installed into large warehouses and industrial buildings at a particular stage during construction. This required detailed planning to ensure that everything was ready at the right time.

I was, the Production half of the duo thought, just the man for the job. But he needed his brother’s agreement. Maybe a second interview would be arranged immediately after Christmas. A few days later the brother rang me. He didn’t need to interview me. He wanted me there as soon as the Christmas holiday was over. Oh, and yes, they’d find me a car.

I was there exactly two months. They were, it transpired, in serious financial trouble, with bills outstanding at several important suppliers. I would be chasing up promised materials, or the delivery to site of a hired machine, only to be told “You need to talk to your finance department. We can’t supply you until we get some payment.”

Eventually I came in one Monday morning toward the end of February to be told to pack up my things and leave. The Production Director apologised. They had held a board meeting over the weekend to try to find a way through their problems. The only way was to reduce staff numbers. I was not the only one affected. I pointed out to the Director that I had been extremely busy throughout my short time there, even coming in some Saturdays. Who was going to do all the work I’d been doing? “I’ll have to do it all myself, just as I did before I hired you,” was his response.

I was, this time, out of work for just a few weeks. The agency contacted me to tell me that my former employer, the power station overhaul specialists, needed an experienced Planning Engineer. The only snag being that it was in Kent.

Another Power station image.
Kingsnorth Power Station (The station was demolished a few years ago). Image from KentOnline

Kingsnorth power station, like Eggborough, had four coal fired generating sets. Two were to be overhauled this summer and the other two the following year. The company had a team permanently based on the site, dealing with routine maintenance as well as major overhauls. It served as a Southern Region Office for the company.

I began work there in April, lodging in a pub in Strood and travelling home Friday afternoon, returning Saturday night. Because Freda needed a car to travel to her work at the nursing home, I had to purchase a car. I booked us into a nearby holiday camp for a week between the two outages. I also found a self catering flat nearer to the plant which was much more convenient than the pub in Strood.

In between working mostly long hours that summer I also managed to explore the area, taking long walks, sometimes along the coast, sometimes in Rochester. I remember the weather in the summer of 1995 as being mostly warm and dry. Although we worked Sundays we tended to finish around 2pm so Sunday afternoons were free.

With the second overhaul completed that autumn, I was kept on to assist in preparing the detailed pricing for the following year’s outage. We also tendered for a quantity of new work in the vicinity, including at Dungeness nuclear station. Having visited the station and spent several weeks compiling the tender, the completed document had to be delivered to the BNFL head quarters in Cheshire to meet a deadline.

It was decided that posting it could not guarantee its arrival in time so I drove home one Friday evening, setting out later than usual as last minute adjustments were made, taking a roundabout route via the M1 and M6 to Cheshire to deliver the documents than back East on the M62, arriving home around midnight. Our tender was not accepted.

After the Christmas and New Year break it was back to Kent once more, this time staying in the pub again. But I did not relish another 9 months of the weekly commute from Yorkshire to Kent and decided to find out what was available nearer home. The agency responded by saying that a team was being established at British Steel in Scunthorpe to deal with a significant new project and they were recruiting for a Planning Engineer. I attended for interview one Monday morning, got a phone call that afternoon offering me the job and handed in my notice to the team in Kent the same day.

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Monday Memories – A New Direction

My boss, the Chief Engineer, was heavily invested in the waste burning project. My council workload was becoming a problem for him. He came to discuss the situation with me, saying he was finding that when he needed to discuss work with me I was not around. Could we come to an arrangement whereby my council business would be confined to specific days of the week? I should point out that, up to this point, the company had been extremely generous in allowing me time off with pay for these duties, subject to my returning the council attendance allowance to them.

A subsequent meeting with the Site Director resulted in the suggestion that a voluntary redundancy package could be put together should I wish to leave. For me the suggestion was welcome, provided the terms were right. It would enable me to embark on my preferred career as a writer and/or politician. When the terms were put to me, they were indeed generous. A tax free lump sum, roughly equivalent to two years salary. In addition, my qualifying service for my future pension would be increased from 18 to 20 years and the pension would be paid from age 60, not 65.

Coincidentally, the company’s pension had been a subject I had addressed in an article for the Senior Staff Association magazine a few years before. A number of the members were exercised about what seemed like inadequate communication between the executive and the membership. I and one of the Chemists from the R&D department in Coventry had, independently of each other, proposed that a members’ newsletter or magazine was needed. “Why don’t the pair of you get together and produce it?” was the challenging response, and we did.

There was a general feeling that Courtaulds’ staff pension scheme did not measure up to those offered by the civil service and other “blue chip” companies. I investigated and concluded that our scheme was – I think my words were – “disappointingly average,” backing that conclusion with data gleaned from various sources. You could call it my first piece of investigative journalism! The basic principle of all such schemes, based on rules established by the tax authorities because the contributions were tax exempt, was that the pension earned by the combined contributions of employer and employee, extending over 40 years, should not exceed 2/3 of your final salary.

More than 30 years later, now that I have been in receipt of a pension from the scheme for 17 years, I have to say I am grateful to have been a member whilst I was an employee.

To her credit Freda supported my decision to leave my safe, secure job. Ian was now well settled in his position as a student nurse, living in Lincoln and making new friends. It would not be easy living on the meagre attendance allowance and Freda’s salary from the Spastics’ Society, but the lump sum redundancy payment would yield some income if wisely invested and I hoped to be able to generate some additional income from writing.

I left Courtaulds shortly before my 45th birthday in November 1986. One of the first things I bought on the strength of my severance package was a Word Processor. Since the early 1980s I had had access to an Apple 2 desk top computer at work and, more recently, this had been replaced by a Hewlett Packard PC which was networked with new HP mainframe computers.

Image shows an early desk top computer with separate keyboard and small printer.
An Amstrad 512 kb word processor/computer like the one I purchased on leaving Courtaulds. Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amstrad_PCW

The Amstrad Word Processor came in two versions – the basic 256 kb machine with one built-in floppy disc drive and the larger 512 kb machine with two disc slots. I opted for the 512. The main advantage of this being that you did not have to keep swapping discs. To explain that properly, it is necessary to realise that neither 256 nor 512 kb of on-board memory allowed for any software to be permanently installed. You used one disc to load the software, then saved the files you created to a separate floppy disc. This was infinitely easier with two discs than with one.

I had become quite accomplished at using Lotus 123 spreadsheets for work so my colleagues purchased, as their leaving gift for me, a spreadsheet programme that would run on the Amstrad. Because of the limited on-board memory you had to create your spreadsheet from scratch, defining how many columns and lines you would need. A long way from the seemingly infinite number of columns, lines and sheets that can be utilised on present day spreadsheets!