This is the speech I gave at this year’s Denison High School Band Banquet, at which I presented the seventh annual Super Steve Award. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this award was created in 2011 to honor my late son Stephen, a DHS band member who died in an accident in June 2010 just a few weeks before his 16th birthday.

Good Evening.

Each year, I am honored to be invited to come before this group to present the Super Steve Award. I’d like to thank the band directors, the boosters, the parents, and especially you students for taking the time to remember and honor my son in this way. And, for as long as I have a breath in me, I will always be more than happy to come here and make this presentation.

Seven years. It’s hard to imagine almost seven years have passed since the accident that took Steve’s life. It seems like only yesterday for me, and for anyone else who knew him. Do you remember where you were seven years ago? Most of the Freshmen here were just finishing up second grade…imagine that! You Seniors sitting in front of me didn’t start playing in Band for another year. That seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? And now you’re ready to move on to the next phase in your lives, hopefully filled with new experiences and exciting adventures. I certainly wish you all the best as you move forward in the world. But, be sure to remember where you came from and those you spent time with in class; you might be as surprised as I was to learn how much they really thought about you but were too shy or too cool to say anything back in school.

I realized the other day that very few of us in this room actually knew Stephen. I once said that eventually the day would come when no one here will have ever known him, and that it was the responsibility of those of us who did to tell those who follow a little bit about him. Steve’s friends and classmates still talk about him and the influence he had on their lives; I know this because many of them stay in touch with me through Facebook. That makes me very glad, knowing the memories will stay alive and the stories will keep passing down for a long time to come. Perhaps someday they may be the ones standing here, telling those that come along after all of us are gone what he was like, and why this award is so different from most of the other ones that are handed out this evening.

There have been many superlatives used to describe Steve and his personality. He’s been called a leader, a hard worker, a true warrior, a dedicated trumpet player, and an ideal student, among others. My favorites are “Mr. Integrity” and, of course, “Super Steve.” His accomplishments in academics were well recognized, having won numerous awards going all the way back to elementary school. He was second in his class, and well on his way to becoming valedictorian. He always strived to do his best no matter what he did, including Band; there were countless hours of practice he put in to make himself better.

But, to me the superlatives that mean the most are inscribed on his gravestone – Son, Brother, and Friend. Stephen was a Son whose talents made Chris and me as proud as any parents could ever be. He was a Brother who fought like cats and dogs with his siblings but fought harder when someone crossed them. And, he was a Friend who never hesitated to help others in need.

The criteria used in selecting the individual to receive this award are also superlatives in a sense; they are all qualities that were a part of Stephen’s character, the essence of the “everyday Steve” his classmates and teachers knew and admired, and still talk about to this day.

First is Pride for Band. This speaks for itself. Steve was very proud of being a member of the Touch of Gold, and when he was selected as a section leader he took the job to heart, working hard to learn how to be one of the best. Had he lived, I’m sure he would have been.

Next is Integrity. He stood by what he said, he followed the rules, and both celebrated his successes and owned up to his mistakes. I’d say the title of “Mr. Integrity” was well earned.

Leadership comes next. Steve was a natural leader in many respects, but most importantly he wouldn’t ask anyone to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself.

And finally, Selflessness. He gave of himself – his time and his talents – with no expectation of anything in return.

That sounds like a lot to live up to, doesn’t it? I suppose it is. Steve took it all in stride, and I’m sure if you ask any of the previous recipients of this award that question they might say the same thing. That’s what makes them “super”.

And with that, it is my honor and pleasure to present this year’s Super Steve Award to Maxwell Perez.

9
Sep

What Were They Thinking?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Have you ever encountered a situation that made you stop and ask out loud, “What were they thinking?” It seems almost a daily occurrence to me, and probably to a lot of you as well. While it’s a rhetorical question, the answer usually takes the form of “they weren’t thinking at all”, but I came across one that merits a completely different answer.

As many of you may know, it’s possible to access your Social Security information online using a very handy web portal called “My Social Security” at www.socialsecurity.gov. Once you’ve registered yourself on the portal, you can check your reported income history, get an estimate of how much your benefit payments will be when you retire, get answers to questions about your account, and more. I used the site a few months ago as I was trying to get a handle on my financial situation and do some planning for the future after my working days are over, and I highly recommend everyone go out and visit it periodically, if nothing more than to see how much you’ve made over your working career.

I received an interesting e-mail from the Social Security Administration (SSA) a couple of days ago. It seems since the last time I used their website they had implemented a “multifactor authentication” system in response to a Presidential executive order calling for more security to protect online financial information. The way it works is, first you add a cell phone number to your account profile; then, any time you want to log in after that you first enter your username and password, then they send a one-time code by text message to your cell phone, which you also enter on the site before it finally lets you see your account information. The idea is by having a separate code sent to your cell phone, it makes the login process extra secure.

At first blush this sounds like a great idea; after all, who wants the bad guys to be able to see your financial records? But, what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate into good results. And that’s what the e-mail was all about: it was announcing they were removing this new system and going back to the old method of logging in. The reason they were doing that was because, in the six weeks since they implemented the new system, they learned that it had “inconvenienced or restricted access to some of our account holders.” In other words, they made it so secure that not only did it keep the bad guys from getting in, it prevented some of their customers from getting in too. They’re working on another solution that they hope to have in place sometime in the next six months.

So what went wrong with their great idea?

They failed to keep their focus on the most important element of their business – the customer. The customer is the heart of any company, large or small; without customers, a business won’t survive. Granted SSA is a government agency and the website is not intended to support a conventional business model, but it still provides a valuable service to the people who visit it, and I’m sure SSA would want to have as many of their customers using it as possible to reduce the volume of calls they receive in their call centers requesting the same information.

While they did not elaborate on the exact reasons for rolling back their solution, my best guess is they assumed everyone who uses the site also owns a cell phone. While it’s true that cell phones are well entrenched in today’s society, they’re still not as commonplace as you might think. Older segments of the population (which would likely make up a large part of SSA’s intended customer base for the website) either can’t afford a cell phone or choose not to own one. By implementing a security system that requires those customers to purchase something they either cannot afford or have little need for, SSA created an environment that’s closed, uninviting, and somewhat hostile – in short, the exact opposite of what’s needed to attract and retain customers.

Now, how could they have avoided this problem?

Instead of blindly working to fulfill an order and assuming everyone had access to the same technology they did, SSA should have looked more closely at the customers who would be using it. It wouldn’t have taken much time or effort to put themselves in the shoes of their parents or grandparents and see what difficulties they might have had. By not doing so, they committed valuable resources to create a product that didn’t serve their customer’s needs, which we all know can be fatal to a business. Had they taken a little extra time up front to understand their customers, they would not be facing the prospect today of redesigning or possibly scrapping their entire solution and starting over. They also would not have to use additional resources to bring back the customers they’re certain to have put off in the process.

Sure, it takes longer to implement changes that way, but by spending a little more time up front the end result will be better suited to serving the customer – and that’s the whole point of being in business, isn’t it?

 

27
Aug

I’m Standing In Front Of Them… Why Can’t They See Me?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

I recently had a conversation with a recruiter at a staffing firm that brought up some interesting thoughts I’d like to share.

Before I get into that, let me provide some background on myself. I’m in my early 50s, about 15 years away from retirement, and was laid off from work seven months ago. Prior to this I had been employed continuously since I was 16, so that’s over 35 years in the workforce. I’ve held a variety of roles from IT to Telecom to Business Analysis and more. My employers have almost exclusively been Fortune 500 companies, so it’s pretty much a given that my skills have had to be better than average in order to stay with them for so long (15 years at my last employer, and 12+ years at the one before that). I regularly received glowing performance reviews and endless praises from my managers and co-workers on my ability to “get the job done”.

So why was I laid off? Why couldn’t I simply find another position in the company and keep working until I retire? That could be an essay unto itself; the short answer is, I was laid off because I was perceived as costing the company too much. Someone in HR decided another employee could do my job at a lower cost, so I was given a severance package and turned loose. I’ve been searching for a new position nonstop, submitting online applications and working through recruiters, and while the feedback I get from my applications is I have very impressive credentials, the result so far has been only a scattered number of interviews and no offers…

…which brings us back to my conversation with the recruiter. She was impressed with my background and skills, and was very interested in placing me to fill her client’s open position I had applied for. We then started talking about salary and benefits, probably the most painful part of these conversations. I usually state what my salary was at my last job and wait to see how the recruiter responds. In this case she told me how much her client was offering, which was more in line with an entry-level employee, or about half of my old salary – nowhere close to what I would need to pay my bills and still have a few pennies left to rub together at the end of the month…and forget about trying to save anything from it for retirement.

But instead of sounding apologetic for wasting my time, she seemed somewhat irritated – not at me, but at her client. She went on to describe that the amount of skill and depth of experience this client wanted was very high, but they are willing to pay only an entry-level salary to get it. On top of that, most of the applicants she’s been hearing from that would be willing to take a lower salary are not interested in becoming a regular employee, but instead would rather work as a contractor. This client, on the other hand, wants to hire regular employees and not contractors. It’s a stalemate that she has a hard time breaking, and it happens frequently with her clients.

As I was listening to her going on about these issues with her client, it made me think less about this particular job. Instead, we started talking more about the overall condition of the job market, the mindset of today’s employers, and the challenges of older workers finding new jobs – which in turn gave me better insight into why it’s taken me so long to find another position.

There’s no doubt the job market I’m in is saturated with people looking for work, at least in the tech field – from recent college grads to more experienced people like me, there’s no shortage of applications being filed for every new job opening. It’s what some call an “employer’s market” with lots of options and choices in their favor, and more competition for us older workers in landing a new position. Nothing out of the ordinary, really; at other times, it’s just the opposite.

The mindset of today’s employers is a greater challenge. The most visible disconnect I see is, many companies post long lists of skills and experience needed for a position, but are failing to recognize there are a lot more intangibles or “soft skills” that come with that experience – things like industry knowledge, loyalty, stability, focus, and perseverance. Those intangibles take a long time to build, and they have value — in some cases, their value can be worth more than the actual skills needed for the job. For example, it’s one thing to have a person who knows how to extract data points from a large database and assemble them into a report that provides information to management; anyone fresh out of college can do that. But, when you have a person who understands how the industry works and can focus on the goals without all the fluff, and can use that knowledge and ability to help management determine which data to extract and how to assemble it to provide the most useful insights into their operation, their value can be beyond measure.

Another element that is overlooked by employers is, in many cases it simply costs more for older workers to live than someone fresh out of college. Think married with children (or simply raising children), a home with a mortgage and monthly utility bills, one or more car payments, saving for or paying to send a child to college, setting aside a little for retirement, and the list goes on. It’s not like we can suddenly flip a switch and downsize our lives to make things work on what we were earning 15 to 20 or more years ago when we were just getting started; while we could eventually get to that point, it doesn’t happen overnight. I imagine if those hiring managers were suddenly laid off and the only jobs they could find required the same level of skill but offered only half the pay, their attitudes might change a bit.

So what would my message be to employers?

One word: THINK.

THINK about the skills and experience you want to bring in. THINK about how long it takes a person to build those up, especially the experience (my resume isn’t three pages long because I sat around doing nothing for 35 years). THINK about the value of that experience – especially the intangibles that come with it. And finally, THINK about how you would look at the job and the salary you’re offering if you were applying for the position.

At the end of our conversation, the recruiter vowed to go back to her client and have a discussion about the importance of looking at all of these details when determining how much to offer for a position. She’s likely going to give them a lesson in expectation-setting as well; like that old phrase “you get what you pay for”, my guess is she’ll tell them that unless they either change the requirements to fit the salary or change the salary to fit the requirements, they’re not going to fill the position anytime soon. I may not hear from this recruiter or about this job ever again, but I feel satisfied I was able to help her by shedding a little light on a problem that shows no signs of going away. Hopefully in turn that will help the next person who comes along and works with her.

As for me, I’m still looking…

 

(Some background for new readers of my blog: I lost a son, Stephen (Steve), in a drowning accident on June 15, 2010; it was a few weeks before his 16th birthday. He was a member of his high school marching band, and was well regarded and respected for his intelligence, integrity, and just being an all-around “good guy”. The band members created an award during the next school year in his memory called the “Super Steve Award”, and it has been my honor to be asked to present it each year during their end-of-year awards banquet. I write a speech each year as part of the award presentation; this is the speech I gave tonight when I presented this year’s award.)

Good evening. I usually try to start my presentation with some sort of lighthearted lines before I get more serious, but I also figured those of you who’ve heard me up here before would probably appreciate it if I could give a shorter speech. Well, try as I might, I simply couldn’t make it any shorter this time, so I guess we’re just going to have to tough it out together.

I’d like to take a moment to thank the band directors, especially Mr. Onspaugh, for continuing to invite me to present the Super Steve Award each year. I consider it a great honor to do so, and I don’t take this task lightly, just as I know the task of selecting the recipient of this award is not taken lightly.

2016 marks the sixth year this award has been given. We’ve come a long way since a very dark day in June of 2010. The class of 2010 had just graduated, Stephen had just finished his sophomore year, and if my calculations are correct you Seniors had just wrapped up your first year playing in the B. Mac band. Do you remember those days? I know your parents do…and probably the band directors as well.

Now here we are, almost six years after the accident that claimed Stephen’s life, and the class of 2016 is graduating. That’s significant in at least two ways as I see it:

First, it means all of you Seniors are finishing high school and moving on to the next part of your lives, whether that’s college, military service, trade school, straight into the workforce, or someplace else that I haven’t thought of. This is no small accomplishment, and I congratulate all of you on reaching this point. While it may seem like the last six years have been a long time for you, it feels like yesterday to me. Let me give you one piece of advice: the time passes faster as you get older – so don’t blink!

2016 is also the year that many of the members of the DHS class of 2012, the class Steve was in, are graduating from college. I’m very fortunate to be friends on Facebook with a good number of his classmates, and I’ve been watching over the years as they have been posting notes about their highs and lows as they made their way through college, or wherever their lives have taken them. Now, of course, I see photos of many of them wearing their caps and gowns as they prepare to cross the stage to get their degrees. I’d like to think some of them will take a moment to remember the friend they lost way too soon, and when they do I hope it’s with a good feeling from knowing he’s looking down and smiling from above.

Steve’s dream was to attend Harvard University, and if the circumstances were different I might very well have been traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts this coming week for their commencement. It might seem far-fetched, or even impossible, to imagine someone from a smaller town like Denison ever getting into a school like Harvard, but if you had ever been around my son you’d also know he was determined enough to make it happen. And that, in a sense, is what the Super Steve Award is all about.

You students were given a set of criteria to keep in mind when choosing the person who will receive this award. I didn’t come up with them, but in looking at them I can tell you they include values he lived by every day, and no one was harder on him about them than he was.

So let’s talk about those for a minute.

The first is Pride for Band. How many of you have seen the display about Stephen in the trophy cases outside the band hall? If you haven’t, I invite you to take a few minutes next week and look at it. What you’ll see are mementoes showing how much Steve loved being in the Touch of Gold band, from his well-worn trumpet that he practiced on forever and a day, to some of his music, to patches he earned from band activities. He loved playing in the band, listening to band music, and always looking for ways to better himself as a musician.

Integrity. What do we mean by that word, integrity? I’ve used the phrase “say what you mean and mean what you say” to describe what I think it is, but lately I’ve thought it goes beyond that. I think it also refers to someone you can count on to be there when you need them, doing the best they can in whatever they are asked to do.

Leadership. What does it take to be a leader? For centuries people have written books about it, philosophers have pondered it, and every generation has had to define it for themselves. There are a few things we all seem to agree on: a leader is someone who can make a decision when others cannot; a person who is strong in their convictions and willing to stand up for them; someone who will go to bat for their team, or their friends, and give their all; a person who wins triumphantly, but humbly, and loses gracefully; and someone who knows when to lead and when to follow. Was Stephen all of these things? Not all at the same time, but yes…and with time I’m certain he would have continued to grow and become even better.

And finally, when was the last time you set your own needs and desires aside to help someone else? That’s the essence of selflessness, the last of the criteria. Parents do it all the time for their children, but unfortunately it’s not as common to find it in someone who was Steve’s age. As I go about my life and meet people who knew him, I learn more and more how he would always be willing to help someone else out with things like schoolwork, or just trying to be a friend. It was really frustrating during his last semester of school when he’d call and say he missed his bus, and we’d have to go pick him up… almost every day. Months after his death, we learned he was hanging out with a friend so she wouldn’t have to sit alone waiting for her mother to pick her up.

Will someone having these values be assured of getting into Harvard? Well, I certainly can’t answer that; I gave up predicting the future a long time ago. But, I’m pretty sure a person who does, including this year’s recipient, will do very well in whatever career choice they make.

And now, it is my great honor to present the Super Steve Award to Ali Javed.

 

8
Feb

When “Time Off” Is Not A Vacation

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

The past two weeks since being laid off have been anything but dull.

The first week actually felt like I was on vacation, probably from the feeling of relief following two weeks of heads-down work updating documentation and training my replacement. I was able to sleep in late (if you consider 8:30am late), take care of some things around the house I’d been meaning to work on, and generally relax. I was checking my ex-company’s online job board each day to see if new positions were opening up, and I did apply for a couple that seemed to fit my background. I also got word from a former co-worker about an opening on her team that she thought I should apply for…it’s in an area I’m not as comfortable with, but she assured me my background would be very useful in the role, so I applied for it as well. She said she’d be looking for the application to come through. The week ended on a pretty good note, and I felt very confident that my next job was just around the corner.

Then came the second week. Silence. No replies to my applications, not even the one I had “inside help” with applying (at last word she’s trying to contact the recruiter to find out where my application is in the pipeline). I started getting letters from my former employer about what I no longer had access to, reminding me how my severance would be paid, what it would cost to continue my medical benefits through COBRA, options for rolling over my 401K, etc.

Stuff’s getting real, I thought.

It was time to buckle down… so I dug into the information I was getting from a representative assigned to me from the job coaching company my ex-employer is paying for me to use for the next four months. At his request I had sent a copy of my current four-page detailed resume for analysis, and he came back with what I call “the usual list” of tips and suggestions – “you must have a summary statement”, “you shouldn’t list more than 10 years worth of experience”, “highlight accomplishments, not skills”, “keep the resume to no more than two pages”, and so on. I don’t care who you are, none of those are easy to do when you have a technical career that spans over three decades, and you have no idea what training or experiences from all of that time may be just what an employer is looking for… but I decided to humor the guy and give it a whirl. I started hacking away, eliminating entire sections and completely rewriting others, and by the end I had a document that was just under two pages in length as he requested. It doesn’t have all those details I felt were important to keep, but it does point out the most important aspects of each position I’ve held. I said to myself, we’ll run with this a while and see what happens. I have all the stuff I removed in a second document I can provide if needed. If you’re interested in seeing a comparison of the two, let me know.

His next suggestion was to update my social media accounts to reflect my job change. I have two accounts, one on Facebook (who doesn’t?) and one on LinkedIn, which for those who don’t know is a site that focuses strictly on business people and has been around longer than Facebook. I decided to not only update my employment status on both, but also to update my online job history on LinkedIn with the revisions I made to my resume. Will it make a difference? We’ll see.

In the meantime, I got some help from an unexpected direction. A classmate of mine from high school contacted me through Facebook and asked me to forward a copy of my resume to him. In turn, he put me in touch with one of his company’s recruiters in my area. He was the first business person I’d talked with since my layoff, and we had a delightful conversation about my situation, background, and what sort of position I was looking for. He said he would check with his clients to see if they had any openings, which made me feel good about the day… but it was something else he said during the conversation that made my entire week: he mentioned after looking over my resume that I have “very marketable skills.” Now that doesn’t sound like much, but coming from a person who has never met me before and has only my resume to go by, that meant the world to me. Maybe that job coach’s ideas for restructuring my resume weren’t so bad after all?

So, now I begin my third week of unemployment. I expect I will be even busier, working all the job boards and searches, sending out inquiries, doing some networking, and hoping to land at least one job interview with some company somewhere. Just to get to an interview will be a major accomplishment even if I don’t get an offer, since it means they’re at least interested enough in what I’ve done to talk to me.

Wish me luck!

 

24
Jan

“But How Do You Feel?”

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Well, the layoff finally took place last Friday. It really hasn’t registered in my head just yet; since it was at the end of the regular work week, it’s felt more like an ordinary weekend the past two days. The coming morning will certainly change all that. I sat down and did some simple math this past afternoon… since I graduated from high school in 1980, I have been totally unemployed a total of one week. Yes, that’s right – one week in over 35-1/2 years. That one week was in 1987 between leaving my co-op student job at IBM and starting a temp job at Coca-Cola. I surprised myself with that one. While I’ve been looking for another position since I was notified about the layoff, it’s going to take on an entirely new meaning for me starting tomorrow.

The first question people have asked me, and continued to ask all through the past two weeks is, how do I feel about what’s happening? That’s a fair question, but it seems so cliche at the same time because it’s usually the “only” question anyone seems to want to hear. Why is that? I suppose it’s because people want to find some sort of connection with the person being questioned, some way of sharing the emotions of someone who may be a total stranger but for that one thin line of feeling. I don’t really have a desire to establish emotional connections to people I may have never met before; to me, most emotions are personal – something to be shared with family and close friends who won’t take them and twist them around or use them in some distorted way for their own amusement or personal gain.

But for those who are still curious, let me respond with the message I sent to my manager and as many of my now-former co-workers as I could on my last day (the subject line of my e-mail was “Happy Trails”, and I’ve removed the name of the company to avoid any conflicts):

All,

In less than an hour, I will be walking out of the Plano office for what may be the last time. Before I do, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank each of you for the support and the good wishes I have received regarding the end of my position with ___ and the hopes for my future. I have no bitter feelings over the decision that was made, and I will be leaving the same way I arrived – with a smile.

I have to say it’s been quite a ride over the years, but it’s been made all the more pleasant and memorable thanks to the people I’ve been honored to work with. There are many more co-workers I wish I could include here, but most of them have already moved off to other places. If you happen across any of them, please pass along my best wishes.

I still don’t know yet where I will be going or what I will be working on next; I will continue to check for available internal openings as long as I’m allowed, while searching elsewhere as well. My hope is to land on my feet quickly and continue my career, be it with another group in ___ or elsewhere. Any suggestions or leads you might come across would be appreciated.

Will our paths cross again? I would like to think so. But in case they don’t, or you’re just wanting to chat a bit about how things are going, here’s how you can reach me:

[here I listed my personal contact information]

In closing, again I wish to say “thanks for the memories” and I look forward to hearing from you again in the future.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out what my feelings were at the time.  And when you do, there’s no need to share – you’ll spoil the fun for everyone else! LOL

13
Jan

A Door Is Closing… Where’s The Next One?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

I was officially notified on Monday (the 11th) that my position at work had been eliminated and that I was being laid off. My last day of working for my employer will be at the end of next week (the 22nd)…if…

if what?

…if I can’t find another position within the company between now and 60 days after my last day. During this time I’m in what they call a “preferential rehire status” which means I can be hired into another position without any special conditions. My application for any open positions will be considered before they look at established employees who are just looking to move into a new job. Or at least, that’s what I’m being told. In the past it’s taken as long as three weeks to hear back on a position I’ve applied for; I applied for four positions in the last 24 hours, so we’ll see if it’s any faster now that I’m in this “preferential” status.

When I met with my manager to discuss this, I received assurances that the decision was not based on a lack of work, or my job performance, or through any fault of my own or of anyone else on the team. It was good to hear that I hadn’t done something to cause this to happen.

My job position may have been eliminated, but the work hasn’t gone away. Someone still has to be around to do the things I do, but it won’t be me. Instead, a seemingly forthright gentleman located in a Central America country will be picking up the work…and I’m spending my remaining days on the job training him. All I can promise is by the end of the two weeks he’ll be able to find where things are and have a rough idea of how things work. I can’t really pass along the intuition I’ve learned, the experiences I’ve had, and the techniques I’ve developed for solving the unique problems that come with the job. Some of those come from being on the same client account for 15 years, and based on the photo I’ve seen of my replacement, he was probably in middle school when I joined the account. I’m not saying he isn’t talented – not by a long shot – but in a team as small as the one I’m in, sometimes long-term experiences can be critical to keeping the work moving. But, I suppose the folks who came up with this layoff plan didn’t think about that…

In the meantime, while I’m looking for another job I’ll be getting severance pay, which is a good thing. What they’ve offered me is pretty decent compared to what I’ve heard some people were given in previous layoffs. It doesn’t beat having a full-time job with full benefits, something I’ve enjoyed for almost all of my adult life, but it’s better than nothing at all… especially when you have things to pay for like a mortgage, utilities, car payments, groceries, a kid in college, etc. But, I suppose the folks who came up with this layoff plan didn’t think about that either…

So, what exactly did the folks who came up with this layoff plan think about?

Numbers. Strictly numbers.

Numbers, as in how much does it cost to have an employee in the U.S. to do the work compared to an employee in a Central American country to do the work? I don’t know the details, but my guess is the cost of living down there is significantly lower, and given the age of my replacement he’s probably at a lower wage level and benefit costs than me (at least I would hope so!). Looking at those points alone would be plenty of justification, especially if you multiply that by the thousands of employees that my employer plans to lay off in the near future. The savings in terms of numbers would be substantial – millions upon millions of dollars each year once you roll in all the ancillary costs like benefits packages.

And just to add some extra points to ponder, consider this last little tidbit: Remember that “if” I talked about back at the beginning? Well, there’s another part to it: if I am unsuccessful in being hired for another open position by the end of those 60 days after my last day, their current layoff rules say I can never work for them ever again.

Never, like I don’t exist.

While I was searching through their open job list, I saw hundreds of open positions. Imagine for a moment that there was a large pool of people who are trained, willing, and able to take on every single one of them… but they can’t be hired because they used to work for the same company just a few years ago. Seems like quite a waste of valuable resources available for the picking. But, I suppose the folks who came up with this layoff plan didn’t think about that either…

So, now what? Well, as I alluded to in the title of this entry, the door to my old job is closing, and as the saying goes another door should be opening. I haven’t seen it yet, but I sure hope it opens soon…and I hope that whatever is behind it is better than what I’m being asked to leave behind.

6
Jan

What’s in a (Pen) Name?

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Writing

Like most of the other members of the Shared Words writer’s group, I have had aspirations for many years to be a published author. And, in fact, I am – did you know our group published a book in 2014? You can learn more about it by visiting the following link — Shared Words: Volume One

I’ve worked on several writing projects on my own, with encouragement from the rest of the group, and even have one completed book. Well, okay, it’s in draft form, but it’s still a complete story. And one of these days I’ll get around to editing the dialogue and polishing up the text. And then maybe I’ll see about getting it published.

But…

…one of the things I’ve gone back and forth with is whether publishing something under my real name is a good idea. I decided to do a little research into this to get a feel for what other published and want-to-be-published writers are doing. After checking with several sources and reading through some interesting discussions on the topic, I found the opinions about evenly split and the reasons fairly consistent. These two stood out the most to me:

Avoiding conflicts. Many writers who decided not to use their real names did so to avoid creating conflicts with family, friends, and even their employers. Their concern was the subject matter of their writings might not sit well with family or friends, or could cause unacceptable disruptions in their place of work (and from what I’ve seen so far, most writers need those non-writing jobs to keep food on the table until they can get established).

Protecting privacy. When you stick your name out in front of the world, and people start to notice your work and you get more popular, eventually someone’s going to want to learn more about you and/or your family. And in today’s age of instant access to information, it’s not difficult for someone who is determined enough to find out where you live, the kind of car you drive, or the names of your children. There were more than a few women in these discussions that said they chose not to use their real names in order to avoid having an abusive ex-boyfriend or ex-husband hunt them down, which I found very disturbing.

There was one more thing I looked into, and that was to see if there were any other published authors out there that share my name. Now you might think with a last name like Bernier that we’d be few and far between in the literary world, but it’s not the case. In fact, I found published works under the names Mike Bernier, Michael Bernier, M. Bernier, and M.J. Bernier, which are the only versions of my name that I would have considered using (there are two other variations but I use those mostly when signing official/legal/contractual documents).

With my “rare” name not being so rare after all, that pretty much ended my deliberations — a pen name it will be.

But now, what name do I choose?

 

2
Jan

A Writing Prompt to Share

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Writing

I’ve found that a lot of writers like to use “prompts” to help them develop ideas for new stories. My writer’s group does this too, usually in the form of posting a word or phrase and everyone tries to write something that incorporates the prompt, either literally or in an implied way. It’s usually a lot of fun, and we take turns reviewing and critiquing each other’s work, which in turn helps us all become a little better as writers.

Every once in a while, I’ll come across something else that strikes me as a good prompt to use in writing. It might be a sentence, a photograph, something I see while driving down a road, and so on. A few days ago, a very dear friend posted an animated GIF image on her Facebook page, and when I saw it the idea of what to write immediately popped into my head. A few minutes later, I had posted my thoughts in a comment below the picture. It’s not so much a story as it is a description of the scene, which is just as important because it sets the tone and the mood for the story.

Here’s what I wrote. Read it first, then have a look at the image. How well did I do in setting up the scene in your mind? What would you expect to see next? I’m definitely keeping this piece of writing in my collection. Who knows? You might see it again someday…

“New Year’s Eve 1898, Springfield Illinois. A narrow road, its ruts from carriages passing earlier in the day filling with the light flakes of new-fallen snow. Overhanging trees, their leaves long lost for the winter, painted in the icy whiteness of the season. The gaslight’s glow brings the stillness to life, inviting her to walk down the lonely path…”

(Link to image: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/09/6e/97/096e973023df1543114b0c3107b32109.gif) I do not own or claim any rights to this image; it is reproduced here for illustrative purposes only.

 

Happy New Year!

Wow, it’s been four and a half years since I posted here — where did all the time go?

There are a couple of reasons for my long absence:

The first reason is, I got busy with other activities both inside and outside of work. In March of 2011 I joined the local Civil Air Patrol (CAP) squadron, and I gradually became more and more involved in the group’s activities. I became the squadron’s Information Technology Officer (ITO), then its Public Affairs Officer (PAO), and a lot of my creative energy was spent building a new website (which you can visit at http://www.captexoma.org/), writing press releases and articles, and eventually taking on a Facebook page as well. Two years later in 2013 I was asked to become the squadron’s commander, a role I didn’t think I was ready for but all of the other members have been extremely supportive and helpful, allowing me to take on the responsibility and not look too much like an ignorant fool in the process. It’s a 3-year commitment that I’ll be stepping down from later in 2016.

Work has taken some twists and turns as well. The client contract I’d been working on for 10 years was not renewed, and I was pulled into a new project to close it down. This took an amazing 2-1/2 years to complete, and really pushed my skills in designing and managing databases and performing complex data analysis to new levels, resulting in saving our company a lot of money. I was very proud to have been recognized for all the hard work, but saddened that many of the people I had worked with over the years were either sent off to new positions or laid off from the company. I did manage to hold on to a position with the tiny piece of service for the same client that we were still providing, but the type of work is something I hadn’t done in many years – production support. If you don’t know what that is, drop me a note and I’ll be glad to explain it to you…it’s not the most glamorous of jobs, but it pays the bills.

The second reason for being away so long is, I needed to take a step back. Anyone who reads my blog posts from July 2010 through July 2011 will see that I spent the entire year after Stephen’s death writing about him and little else. My writing seemed to swing back and forth from happiness to sorrow, and I’m sure many people were wondering at the time if I was going to spend the rest of my life writing and living that way (and for a time, I was asking myself that same question). So, I backed off most of my writing (except for a few smaller projects here and there) and spent a lot of time looking at what I was doing and where I was going. Some of the major things I focused on were:

  • Taking time to grieve. In spite of my resistance to it, the psychologists were right: I needed time to grieve over Stephen’s death. Time that was spent in the ways I felt they needed to be spent, which might have been different from the way some people might have expected.
  • Establishing a “new normal.” What does that mean? It means adjusting to all the changes that came about because Stephen was no longer alive. What would my relationships be like with family, friends, and co-workers? What would I say to people who ask to “hear the story” about his accident? How would I respond when someone who knew him wanted to talk about their memories? And most of all, what would I need to do in order to get through the daily routine of working, eating, sleeping, and just being alive?
  • Securing Stephen’s legacy. He touched so many lives that it didn’t seem right to let his memory fade away after his friends and classmates moved on. So, following that first year after his death, I worked to ensure the honors established by everyone else would continue going forward. Each year since then I’ve presented both the “Super Steve” award at the year-end band banquet and the Stephen Bernier Memorial Scholarship during Senior Awards night, and I’ll continue to do both for as long as I’m invited. And at last year’s banquet I presented a display case filled with memorabilia including his trumpet, a project that was almost three years in the making; this case is now on display at the high school where students from now on can see it, learn about him, and ask questions.
  • Finding a new direction and purpose. The day Stephen died, a part of me died inside as well. The changes were enormous: the road my life had been following up to that time wasn’t working any more, and the goals and dreams I once had didn’t fit in with the new world laid out in front of me… so trying to continue down that path was pointless. I started searching for new goals and reaching for new dreams, which in part led me to volunteer work with CAP and the local Amateur Radio community (I’ll talk more about both of those in future posts).

But even with all that, I still felt something missing. My writing… somehow I needed to get back into my writing. There are still plenty of stories floating around in my head, ideas waiting to be shared with the world (or maybe just a few close friends). And so I decided to start up this blog once again. I don’t know how often I’ll be posting just yet, but at least I’ll be writing.

Wish me luck!