ENVIRONMENT
09/23/2011 05:40 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

Solyndra's Former Workers Hunt For Jobs, Wince At Public Image

NEWARK, Calif. -- While 51-year-old Mohammad Sharifi, a married father of two, was getting ready for work on Aug. 31, his son came into the bedroom to tell him a co-worker had called.

Sharifi phoned his friend -- who had just finished a night shift at Solyndra, the solar panel manufacturer where they both worked as equipment technicians -- and learned, just before he put on his tie, that "there was no job anymore." The company had filed for bankruptcy, and its headquarters in nearby Fremont were quickly surrounded by security guards and TV satellite trucks.

In the weeks since, much attention has been given to Solyndra's collapse and the half-billion-dollar loan guarantee the company received from the Obama administration. There's been far less interest in the company's roughly 1,100 former employees, all of whom were let go at the end of August. While it's hard to know how many of these formerly well-paid workers are still looking for jobs, several hundred gathered here Friday at Ohlone College to meet potential employers.

Many of those laid off came in dress shirts and ties, reminders of the booming industry in which they used to work, and carried stacks of résumés. And they had eerily similar stories to tell of waking up one Wednesday morning and hearing from a colleague or relative that something was happening at Solyndra. For Daniel Hughes, a 48-year-old who had spent the last three years at the company, the search for new employment began when his sister called and told him to turn on the television.

Now Hughes is growing increasingly worried. He was paid for just 30 hours of accrued vacation time and can't afford the COBRA health coverage because it costs about $250 per week and he's receiving just $450 per week in unemployment benefits. The competition for jobs is steep, especially with so many qualified former Solyndra employees applying for the same openings.

Josh Plaisted, the chief technology officer at EchoFirst, another solar energy company, said he sees about a hundred applications for each job opening. Right now he has six spots available in Fremont, a technology-centric city that has a population of a little more than 200,000 and an unemployment rate of about 10 percent.

Those odds make it tough for James Daniels, who is 55 and has two kids, to be optimistic as he meets on Friday with recruiters, who all hand out pens and candy and too often also bad news. In this way, even as the circumstances surrounding Solyndra's demise are fairly unusual, the circumstances in which its former employees find themselves are all too common.

Daniels, who worked a night shift in the manufacturing division, said the lack of notice about the company's troubles made looking for a job even harder than usual.

At a business update meeting about a month before the bankruptcy, Daniels said, he had asked an executive about the company's cash flow. He was told Solyndra would have enough money to make it through at least the end of 2011.

That turned out to be wrong. And while most of the ex-employees said there was plenty of blame to go around -- from state and federal government officials to corporate executives, to say nothing of foreign competition -- Daniels and others said it hurt to see Solyndra's top leaders dodging questions on Capitol Hill about the company's collapse and the odds it would ever repay the government-guaranteed loan.

"At least he could have said something," Daniels remarked, referring to Solyndra CEO Brian Harrison. "For our chief to plead the Fifth, that just doesn't make you proud to have worked so hard for so long."

For now, though, there aren't enough free hours to read all the accounts of Solyndra's failure. Looking for a job can be a full-time job. Although some former employees joked that Friday's event was like a family reunion, it was a reunion at which stress counseling services were offered.

Sharifi said it had taken him 10 months to find a job at Solyndra, and he expects it'll take longer to find work this time. But he said he couldn't show a negative attitude in front of recruiters, and so, as his turn to speak with a representative from Applied Materials came, he added, "I feel great. I really do."

And then he turned back and said, "I'll still feel great tonight if I get a job today."

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