And then they were gone; workers move on after loss of big employers

At its peak, Convergys Corp.'s Kamloops call centre provided jobs for 1,200 people, making it the city's largest employer.

Those jobs, while not family supporting, often provided opportunity for people looking for a second income or for those who were permanently under-employed.

Farther east, at Pollard Banknote, the printing plant for lottery tickets from around the world provided union-level wages, benefits and relative job security.

Within a space of three months, both are gone - leaving an enormous hole in Kamloops' economy.

Dan Sulz, chief executive officer of Venture Kamloops, said city business people haven't directly told him they're feeling the pinch from the loss of economic activity of the two employers.

"But with the scale of payroll loss, I can imagine it's there."

He has seen the joblessness through inquiries to his office about self-employment as well as traffic on the website's job opportunities.

But Sulz noted job loss was spread out over eight months, starting when Convergys began shedding workers in summer, making the impact less severe.

What Bev Ohms misses most about Convergys is the medical benefits. Her husband is self-employed and now the couple must get by without medical and dental benefits.

"That was the reason I stayed. Benefits were huge."

Ohms began working at the call centre in 2001, when it came to Kamloops. She eventually cut back to part-time work, three days a week. It was enough to pay the couple's mortgage, nothing more, and it had medical and dental benefits.

When she got her layoff notice, Ohms saw it as a chance to join her husband's equine massage business by adding dogs to the service.

"For me it was a good opportunity. (Previously) I intended to wait until I retired from Convergys to become self-employed."

Today Ohms and her husband operate Ohms Horse and Hound Massage Service, focusing mainly on horses. They frequently travel out of town but are based in Kamloops.

Jennifer Zachary, a self-employment program co-ordinator at Community Futures Development Corp. of Thompson Country, said Ohms is one of a number of former Convergys workers who have come through the program.

Others have considered the option but not followed through with setting up a business.

"Some people aren't quite ready for that. Sometimes they find a job during their search for (self-employment) information."

Workers at Pollard Banknote were fortunate to have severance packages when they lost their jobs late in 2009 and in February this year. But those severance packages also disqualified them from receiving government assistance, at least until the payments were exhausted.

Shirley Culver, also with Community Futures, said the Pollard Banknote jobs will be difficult to replace due to their high wages and benefits.

Culver's son worked at the plant for 20 years, "right out of high school," she said.

"He climbed up the corporate ladder and did night school and certifications. (Now) he's either over-experienced or under-experienced. It was a very specialized place."

Culver said Pollard employees were also isolated in Campbell Creek in the self-contained operations and lacked opportunity to network, making finding new employment tougher.

While Convergys brought hundreds of workers to Valleyview each business day, there was little spinoff in the neighbourhood. Now that the building is empty, there is hope in the community for a magnet, similar to the Kmart that once operated there.

"We lost a few steady Eddies (customers)," said Sandy Augustine, who operates the Comfy Couch Deli in a nearby strip mall. "It didn't mean anything to us."

Augustine said most Convergys workers brown-bagged their lunches. The company also contracted out for a small concession inside the building, leaving little outside business.

"Valleyview needs it (big retailer)," said the self-described Valleyview girl. "We need to get things going in Valleyview."

Princess Auto was a rumoured tenant for the building but a company representative said recently there are no immediate plans to enter the Kamloops market.

Sulz said those wanting one big retailer may be disappointed. But he believes several may fill the space instead, providing jobs and a reason for shopping in Valleyview.

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