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Turning Losses Into Wins and Living To Teach About It

Published 07/31/2011
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

Wake Tech instructor Roger Cameron is standing in front of his class talking about his wardrobe.

His $4 khaki pants came from the Durham Rescue Mission Bargain Center. His shirt cost $1 at Walmart.

Cameron doesn't just teach "How to Survive on Unemployment or Reduced Wages," he lives it.

Cameron, a 61-year-old former Lenovo program manager, was laid off in March 2009. Two days after he got his notice, his wife was laid off as well.

He has not worked for another company since. Neither has his wife.

Instead, Cameron has cobbled together jobs consulting and teaching a variety of classes at Wake Technical Community College. His wife spends more time volunteering.

They are able to have a comfortable existence because of smart choices they made while he was working and even smarter choices after they both lost their jobs. They downsized their home, for example. Their quality of life, however, has not taken a hit. They both volunteer more and spend more time with their grandchildren.

Many of the classes he teaches are, like his "How to Survive" class, designed to help others who are trying to make ends meet while hunting for a job or a way to reinvent themselves.

The class offers not just savvy advice but a lesson in rebuilding your self-esteem.

Cameron tells the group that he was initially "stunned" by the layoff especially after receiving consistently good work reviews. After hiding in his "cave," for a bit, he came out and got down to business. He said that he first had to understand that losing his job was not a reflection of his work performance but of the tough economy.

One of the first things he did was examine the family budget.

Cameron says one of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming they are going to get a job right away. He advises looking at everything you are spending money on and making significant cuts. Get control of spending by distinguishing between "needs" and "wants." Review every expense. This includes high-speed Internet, cable or satellite. Look for ways to shave costs.

Even find out where to get free coffee. He stops by car dealerships and hotels for hot java, taking his own cup.

Wendy Jefferson, a former administrator at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, was in a recent class and said she wishes she had taken it earlier in her downsizing journey. Jefferson, a single mother, expected to have a job by now. She has been out of work since October 2009.

"This is the first time I've been let go from a job," she explained. "I expected to be out of work no more than six months. It's harder, more competition. ... I've been applying for similar positions and getting no feedback. Some companies are offering the same position but only asking for a high school diploma."

That means Jefferson, who has several years of work experience and a bachelor's degree in business administration, is often considered over-qualified and a more expensive hire.

After hearing Cameron's lecture, Jefferson said she knows now that she should have made some different moves. She should have cut her cable to one room instead of maintaining it in three. She should have limited eating out. She should have used coupons more. Not that she didn't do some things right, most notably negotiating with her landlord not to have her apartment rent increased.

"When you have established a relationship, sometimes when times are tough, some people will help you," she said.

Cameron says negotiation works with others as well. He suggests reviewing homeowner and car insurances policies and shopping for lower rates. If you have been with a company for a long time, ask for a lower rate or to match the lower rate of a competitor. He did that with his insurance policies.

He also tells students of resources they might have overlooked. For instance, he suggests Angel Food Ministries as a good bargain for buying food. The ministry buys food in bulk and offers it at a low cost.

Jefferson knew about the ministry but had not thought to use it. She particularly liked that the prices on the boxes were fixed, making it easier to budget. "You know what it's going to cost you," she said. "Sometimes the same groceries cost more than they did the week before at the grocery store."

Perhaps the best lesson Cameron gives those who attend his classes is permission to savor the time off.

"When you are working, you don't realize how much you are missing," he says.

Now that Cameron has more time than money, he volunteers at his church. He spends more time with his family. He has even taken up a hobby. He joined the volunteers that run the New Hope Valley Railroad Museum, a heritage railway.

Cameron says he misses working at Lenovo, but he appreciates the opportunity to help others.

"The Lord is meeting my needs," he says. "I look at what I'm doing by teaching at Wake Tech and I know I'm helping and encouraging others."