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Ford workers reach the end

The automaker begins laying off some 4,000 white-collar workers as part of turnaround plan.

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

DEARBORN -- For Mike Harper, Ford Motor Co.'s "way forward" plan led him straight out the door of the design studio where he worked 18 years and onto a stool at Howell's Bar, where he contemplated an uncertain future.

"I didn't even get to say goodbye to people," said Harper, 48, who lost his job Wednesday as Ford began laying off salaried workers as part of a sweeping restructuring of its North American operations. "It hurt."

Harper is one of thousands of workers -- many of whom have worked their entire adult lives at Ford -- who are losing their jobs. In all, Ford plans to cut about 4,000 white-collar positions by the end of March.

"Today was really the first of the bulk of them," said Ford spokeswoman Marcey Evans.

James Schultz, 64, lost his job as an engineer at Ford's Dearborn Stamping plant Wednesday morning after spending 43 years at the factory. He started as a high-low driver and worked his way up to a management job.

"My manager came to me and told me to come upstairs," Schultz said.

Schultz's boss collected his company identification and told him he needed to clean out his desk. And just like that, a career that began during the Henry Ford II era and spanned four tumultuous decades was over.

"I just left," Schultz said. "There wasn't anything in it I wanted."

Schultz said he plans to put in for retirement, since he is eligible. Harper won't have that option.

He has no idea what he is going to do next, but he bets it will not involve vehicle design. Too many people are looking for work and the job openings are scarce.

"With everybody leaving and all the contract people out of work, that's going to be about impossible," he said.

Over the past 18 years, Harper has had a hand in designing everything from the Ford Five Hundred sedan to the Windstar minivan. Until Wednesday, he was part of the team working to turn the Ford Fairlane concept into reality.

"I got treated real well until today," Howell said, as friends and co-workers commiserated and offered to buy him drinks. Some said they were worried about their own jobs, knowing that more layoffs are coming.

Howell's Bar is a popular watering hole for workers from Ford's nearby design and engineering complex, where it is known as "Building H" -- a takeoff on the nomenclature workers use to identify Ford office buildings.

"These guys are our bread and butter," said bartender Sheila Boyless, nodding toward the Ford designers and engineers huddled around the bar. "It's just really sad. This is our family. It's their second home."

Harper, a single parent with a daughter at Schoolcraft College, said he is most concerned about his home in Livonia."It would have been nice to get her out of college and on her own before this happened," Harper said.

While Harper is pretty sure he will have to find a new line of work, he is trying to stay optimistic. His sister in Nashville, Tenn., told him the job market down South is not quite so tight and offered to put him up until he could find something.

"My beer is half full," Harper said as he hefted the bottle and took another sip, "not half empty."
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