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At Delphi Packard, a lifetime of work ends with a signature



Published: Sat, August 5, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



Delphi officials asked people to volunteer to leave Aug. 1.

By NANCY TULLIS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

HUBBARD -- Howard Huffman doesn't know when his last day at Delphi Packard Electric will be, but he is already busy reinventing himself.

Huffman, 60, a tinsmith by trade, just finished his 32nd year at Packard in the fabrication and repair shop. He filed for early retirement July 25 and took a half-day of vacation to meet with township trustees about the township regulations for a home business.

"I thought you were supposed to feel good about retiring," he said. "I was doing that paperwork, and my heart was racing a million miles an hour. I was signing my life away."

Huffman said he will go to work until he's told he's through. Although Packard officials asked people to volunteer to leave Aug. 1, some who've tried were told they are still needed, Huffman said.

"One of my apprentices has two job offers, and they're telling him he can't leave yet," Huffman said.

Huffman has been faced with such career decisions before. During a Packard layoff in the 1970s, he started a construction and concrete business.

He kept the construction business going for a while after returning from a one-year layoff but gave it up when working both jobs became too much of a burden.

"I don't plan to ever retire," he said. "I'll just keep changing careers. People who know me know I always have to be doing something."

He said it will take about three months to iron out all the details necessary to start a custom sheetmetal shop at his home. He already has much of the equipment needed and will create ductwork and other sheetmetal projects.

In the beginning

Huffman went to work at Packard in 1974 after Packard officials approached him. He was working on his own after completing an apprenticeship, and was a member of Sheetmetal Worker Local #5.

"My father knew a general foreman there," he said. "I never thought of working at Packard, but they said they'd really like to have me work for them."

Working on his own, there sometimes wasn't much work in the winter months, and work could be anywhere -- indoors or out -- in all kinds of weather, Huffman said.

"I thought Packard was a great opportunity," Huffman said. "It was steady work, and inside. They told us skilled trades would always have work."

He said his career at Packard gave him the means to provide for his family. "It was a great ride," he said.

He now lives on Bell-Wick Road with his wife, Nancy. The couple has four grown children.

He said though employees closely watched the trends in the industry and the corporate leadership of Packard in particular, they held onto hope that their jobs would be saved right up until the day officials began walking through the shop asking people to leave.

"We knew something was going to happen, but we hoped it wouldn't," he said.

"It hit home when they came through asking who all would be willing to walk away Aug. 1. My apprentice standing there just had a look of absolute terror on his face."

Doubts about management

Huffman said Packard employees went to work every day, often questioning corporate decisions.

"We [workers] always talk about why they do things the way they do," he said. "How can a bankrupt company give executives $88 million in bonuses? They don't care who they hurt. They don't care about America. It's all about Packard.

"The writing was on the wall when the work went to Mexico, then to China. You can't compete with China even working minimum wage," Huffman said.

Huffman said he plans a fresh start and has done it before. He is most worried about younger workers like his two apprentices.

One is a millwright who came to work at Packard after losing his job at Sharon Steel. The other moved from a production job at Packard three years ago and won't be able to earn his journeyman card before his job is gone.

Huffman said the company will provide documentation of work and training toward journeymen status for skilled trades workers who are displaced. He said one of his apprentices plans to start New Castle School of Trades training in September for a new career in heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Huffman has spent his entire life in the Mahoning Valley and has no plans to move. At 60 he has plenty of time for more career moves, he said.

He said doing custom sheetmetal work will allow him to set his own schedule, giving him time for fishing.

He likes to fish Lake Erie for walleye, but also enjoys Mosquito Lake and smaller lakes and ponds in the area, where perch, bass and catfish are likely to strike at his lures.

"If people want work done, I'll just tell them they have to wait," he said. "I'll have to get a 'Gone Fishing' sign."

tullis@vindy.com




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