Therapeutic Dose: Late-Career Limbo

What do you do when your livelihood is pulled out from under you and all your life plans swim out of focus?

By Paul Thomas, Managing Editor

The hardest part was telling the kids. Seventeen years at one of the largest pharmaceutical firms in the world, more than 30 years in the industry, ended abruptly one day with no warning and no fanfare.

Mohammad wasn’t the only one laid off — 200 others at the plant were let go at the same time — but that didn’t make it any easier. The personnel manager had tried to be assuring, he recalls. “It was a business decision and has nothing to do with your performance,” he told him. “You are not the only one to go.” That didn’t help at all.

He would get severance pay and benefits for a year, and then a small pension. And the company would provide a job coach to help him spruce up his resume and interviewing skills. His manager offered support, too. “I’ll let you know if I hear of anything opening up,” he said. Then Mohammad took the last walk to his parking spot, carrying the trappings of his career at the company in a few cardboard boxes.

That night, he couldn’t tell the boys. “They could probably read it on my face when I walked into the house,” Mohammad says. His wife, Pamela, broke the news instead. “I just didn’t know what to say,” he recalls.

“Dad, how could they do this to you?” the boys asked.

At 58, Mohammad had had other plans. He was going to work for another five or six years, then move on to the important things in life — traveling with his wife, and restoring vintage muscle cars like the one in his garage. Now, the family had to make some changes. They sold the house and bought a smaller one. They took out a college loan for the youngest son, who decided to live at home and commute to school. And, finally, they replaced the luxury cars and the muscle car with economy models.

An American success story, Mohammad immigrated to the U.S. in 1972, armed with a bachelor’s in chemistry and master’s in microbiology, both of which were accredited by a U.S. university. He went to work in a clinical lab, where he became assistant manager. In 1988, one of the lab’s vendor firms, one of the country’s largest pharmaceuticals, asked him to come on board.

Starting off in customer support, he was soon asked to provide field quality support for a new product that quickly became the industry standard, garnering over $1 billion in annual sales. Mohammad managed the product’s entire QA group for eight years. He received outstanding performance reviews and several achievement awards.

But the product aged and the company failed to develop a successful upgrade. The company also had regulatory troubles over GMP irregularities. In December of 2003, just as the firm was finding its feet again, Mohammad was laid off.

At first, he felt inadequate. Then he felt angry. “I had helped them put out a product that was one of the most successful in the company’s history.” Pamela was angry, too. She knew how much he had given. She knew how much the whole family had sacrificed. Her husband had missed so many family events. He had always seemed to be working on important projects when one of the kids needed to see the pediatrician, or the dog had to go to the vet, or the car had a flat tire. He spent his 25th wedding anniversary alone, in Europe on a business trip. And yet the whole family supported his dedication to his work and the company.

That following spring, the company hired Mohammad as a consultant on a short-term project. It offered a glimmer of hope that he’d get hired back full-time. But after eight months, it was over. This time, for good.

Mohammad has interviewed for other positions with the firm, but they would involve a huge cut in pay and he isn’t buying it. “Why would I stay with this company that has no loyalty and doesn’t appreciate what I’ve done?” he asks.

So, at 58, Mohammad is a full-time job hunter. He spends three or four hours every morning searching job boards on the Internet, typing cover letters, making phone calls. At noon he goes the gym and works out, comes home for lunch, then makes more calls in the afternoon.

He’s even had a few interviews with new firms. “It’s a very humbling experience, especially to interview for low-level jobs,” he says. “Other companies ask, ‘Why did they lay you off? Look at your credentials.’”

If he does take a job, Mohammad’s okay with a pay cut, as long as he feels the company intends to keep him. And that means until he’s 70. Retiring before 65 is no longer an option.

The travel, and the muscle cars, will have to wait.

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