A mill shuts, a Minnesota worker waits and hopes

There are employed and unemployed Minnesotans. And then there are people like Val Littfin.

Until last week, Littfin, 52, was working happily at Hedstrom Lumber in northeast Minnesota. Then came word the mill was shutting down for two weeks because of the economy and would reopen at only two-thirds capacity.

Littfin, who’s from Grand Marais and is part of our Public Insight Network, describes being in a kind of employment limbo, waiting for a callback from the mill, unsure when it will come, concerned about the future. She captures the hopes and worries of many Minnesotans these days.

We asked Littfin to talk about the economy, starting with a basic question: Do you have a job?

“I did. Perhaps I still do. It’s all rather nebulous. I know I am not on the first tier call back list. Missed it by one person. The owners have told me that everytime they talk to an employee, my position shifts on the second tier call back list. The owners say my name keeps creeping higher up the list.

June will be my two year anniversary with the company. I really like my work. I like my fellow employees. I had a job where I woke up looking forward to going to work. The seven of us in the planing mill had jelled into a tight, cohesive team. We had developed our sense of teamwork to the point where we could run off hand signals and simply knew what to do next. A great place to work with a great team.

My first hope for the future is that I get back to the mill sooner or later.

Right now it’s difficult to remain or perhaps stay hopeful. I feel federal spending is out of control and the national debt is going to hurt and ultimately drive business to use developing countries so they can stay competitive in an internationally based market.

The lumber industry is hurting. Perhaps commercial building and some of the major infrastructure projects in the stimulus package will start the cycle moving upward. Anytime there is cement poured, there is some wood associated with those forms.

The industry is learning to run leaner and more efficient. I’ve sat through two state of the business meeting at the mill. Some costs, such as fuel, cannot be controlled. Others can. Every year, the employees at Hedstrom became a wee bit more efficient.

In the planing mill, we developed new stapling patterns to use fewer staples during packaging. We modified the way we built lifts so that we’d use less packaging material. We became more and more efficient in our turn around time at the end of product runs. No humongous savings, but those pennies add up.

My hope is that the fear mongering ends. My friends talk about they’d like to spend some money but they are worried. So they don’t spend. So it doesn’t go into the economy.

My friends are talking about not taking vacations, at least not to away places, but closer places. The car they wanted to trade-in this fall will now half to last them longer.

As the fear increased, the pocket books snapped shut. Much of the money is still there, few want to open the purse strings.

Friends of mine purchased a home during this time. The hoops they had to jump through! Excellent credit, but everything was double and triple checked. Answers to questions were suspect. They had the credit rating and the money but the mortgage company did not want to believe them. Another set of friends, both with secure jobs, are as if we are already in depression.

Another friend who owns a rental business has seen a change in who is renting the equipment, but the business is steady. However, last time they advertised for a shop manager, they got 75 applications rather than the typical 15.

As long the Wall Street, the newspapers, TV and the Feds keep talking how bad it is, fear will have food on which to grow. Once the focus changes to looking at the bright spots, fear will start wilting and the economy will flourish.

In the meantime, I am hopeful I will be back at the mill in June.

Below are some other stories about employment and jobs from our network. Check them out, then add your story.

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