GM's buyouts send a wake-up call to all U.S. workers

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The icon of American business shed its last vestige of invincibility by offering buyouts to more than 100,000 employees as part of a dramatic reinvention of the giant corporation.

That sends a somber message to the rest of the business world: We're all in this together.

Even if you don't work for GM or any company related to the auto industry, you had better realize that it's time to take control of your career or you'll get left far behind. Buyouts are common in today's world, and you never know when you might be confronted by an offer that could change your life.

"In my mind, this is reality therapy," says Kent Porter, a San Diego-based career consultant. "And I personally don't like change."

That's where the GM buyouts come in. The automaker is offering $35,000 incentives to retirement-age employees to quit. It is offering as much as $140,000 to others with less tenure, providing they surrender rights to future health benefits.

When someone dangles that amount of cash in front of you, it'd be easy to take the money and run.

"Buyouts are attractive to companies," says Duncan Mathison, an outplacement consultant with Drake Beam Morin. "Companies like buyouts more than layoffs because people volunteer for them, and the companies are not left with the poor morale that often develops in companies that have had layoffs."

Buyouts also are attractive to companies because they often cut ties to pension obligations or health care benefits.

Porter looks at the increasing use of buyouts as a wake-up call to all workers.

"I think we all need to look at ourselves as self-employed, whether we work for big companies or operate our own businesses," he said. "You can't count on a company, but you can depend on yourself."

He suggests that upon being offered a buyout, individuals look at their careers and their lives to determine if the buyout is to their advantage. This can be a watershed event in a worker's life, so he urges everyone to take the matter seriously and not just look at the cash value of what's being offered.

"What you don't want to do is make a life decision based simply on money," he says.

When people are offered buyouts, Drake Beam Morin conducts a decision-making seminar that explores an individual's financial issues as well as where they stand in their careers and their lives.

"We're always amazed at how often people say when they are offered a buyout that they always wanted to do something else with their lives but never really had a reason to do it," says DBM counselor Duncan Mathison. "It's like they are being given permission to do what they always wanted to do."

Mathison believes that all job counseling comes down to steering people into jobs and careers that they will enjoy.

He also knows that he has to make sure that people are making choices that have a reasonable expectation of success.

"You don't want to let them take an opportunity like this and suffer bad financial consequences because they made a bad decision," he says.

When a 40-year-old woman recently sought to change careers from computer repair technician to blacksmith, Mathison saw a red flag.

Yet he discovered that the creativity she would having working as a blacksmith would be much more satisfying to her than a job repairing office computers that was based more on customer service. To his surprise, he also found that she could accomplish this career switch without relocating.

She carved out a new career in Southern California, working for a metal-working shop as well as for a horse-drawn carriage business that catered to tourists.

"It turned out to be a sound plan, and she could do it," Mathison says. "We learned from that."

He says people need to understand that a buyout offer may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it is not to be accepted lightly.

Mathison urges workers to carefully evaluate their own lives and the offer. If they want to change careers, they need to seek out those who have successfully and unsuccessfully tried the same thing.

"You have to realize that the offer will be taken off the table at some point, and when it is, you want to make sure in your mind that you are not going to have second thoughts about your decision," he says. "There's nothing worse than thinking the rest of your life that you made a mistake."

Buyouts may promise opportunity, but they certainly are not in everyone's best interest. Porter says you can make the right decision at times by rejecting a buyout offer.

For instance, if you are unwilling to train for a new job, you might not be a viable candidate for a buyout. Or, perhaps you or a family member has a pre-existing medical condition that would make obtaining health insurance difficult or costly.

"But if you decide to stay with your employer, you have to realize that there probably will be more changes coming in your company and you've got to be willing to deal with those," Porter says. "That is part of the bargain you are accepting.

"You may be working for General Motors today, but the company that is General Motors in the future may - and probably will - be different," he says. "You have to accept that."

© Copley News Service

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