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The 4400

| On 29, Dec 2008

Jack Hipple

In the past two weeks or so, there has been a torrent of layoffs, plant closings, and restructurings unknown in recent times. Two major layoffs that caught my eye with my chemical industry background, were those of Dow Chemical (5000) and Air Products (1500). These numbers are in the neighborhood of 10%+ (maybe more) of total staff. It’s not clear how many of these people had technical backgrounds, but I think it’s safe to say that a good many were. Probably around 4400.

Many of you, especially in the US, may remember a hit TV show that ended a few years ago called “The 4400”. It mesmerized many people on Wednesday nights. This was a story about a ball of light exploding when it hit earth and releasing 4400 men, women, and children–all of whom had lived on earth previously from a few months to 50 years, none having aged a single day when they were last seen. These folks were rounded up, quarantined, and eventually released to their families. Soon after their release, some of the returnees begin to experience unexplainable, and in some cases, uncontrollable new abilities. These mysteries, needing to be solved, became the basis for the ongoing series. Does this sound familiar?

It sure does to me and I have seen this through several cycles. It wasn’t but a year ago that chemical companies on the Gulf Coast were paying hiring bonuses to new ChE’s. What will this new 4400 crop do? The same thing they have always done, albeit with a little more difficulty than in the past. Most will be quarantined in with re-employment companies, resumes will go out in the hope that someone is expanding and not contracting (and there are some of these folks!). Some will totally retire and play the stock market, while others will early retire and possibly sign up for a consultants’ registry for short term work. Others will start an entrepreneurial dream they’ve always had in mind and were never able to pursue. Some will join risky venture start-ups. Others will go back to school to gain education in a parallel universe that has always been of interest.

It is highly unlikely, from my knowledge of people who have been through this, that any of the 4400 will return to the same industry segment from which they came.Think about the cost involved in these 4400 people. At a minimum gross cost of $100K per year, this is like the engineering, research, and manufacturing staff costing $440 MILLION dollars per year. This is larger than the research or engineering staff at all but the largest of companies. Now from the standpoint of the previous employers, this is a huge cost savings.

From the standpoint of a new business opportunity, what a resource! Maybe all these folks could be assembled into a new chemical/materials company called “The 4400 Company”. Maybe they could “self-assemble” into a huge consulting firm for the chemical industry–their knowledge will probably be forgotten and will be needed again at some point in time and they will be paid far more as consultants than they were as employees.

I don’t begrudge the hard decisions necessary in a publicly owned/traded company vs. say those of a private company (Cargill, S.C. Johnson for example). They don’t have the same flexibility to be patient. But I do think a little more time could be spent on thinking about how to creatively USE these intelligent resources vs. viewing them as a source of cost savings.What ideas do you have?