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US Employees Face Uncertain Future After Caterpillar Layoffs


Caterpillar is one of the largest heavy equipment manufacturers in the world. It employs over 120,000 people globally. Fifteen thousand of those employees live and work near Caterpillar's headquarters in Peoria, Illinois. Until recently, Peoria was weathering the recession better than most areas of the United States. But Caterpillar is now feeling the pain from the economic downturn that is putting thousands of people in central Illinois out of a job.

Farming is a family tradition for Dan Armstrong. "I've always farmed a little bit. I raise corn and beans," he said.

He lives and works on the farm his parents once owned, outside the small Illinois town of Metamora just north of Peoria.

Six years ago, Armstrong's farming partner, his 23-year-old son Joe, lost a battle with cancer. He tried to continue farming, but the income was barely enough to live on.

So he turned to heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, the biggest employer in central Illinois. Armstrong found a job in a machine shop, and life was good until earlier this year.

"Now I'm going to be layed off, probably in April," he says, "I've got a notice of a permanent layoff coming up here."

Armstrong is one of 22,000 Caterpillar employees worldwide losing their jobs in the global economic downturn.

Jim McConoughey is CEO of the Heartland Partnership, which promotes business in Peoria and the surrounding area. He explains that global demand for the heavy equipment Caterpillar makes has come to a standstill.

"It is the world leader in heavy mining and trucking equipment, and has been sort of a bellwether for recessionary times and a bellwether for prosperity times," McConoughey explaines. "We've enjoyed very much seven years of prosperous growth, and this downturn, at least from a national perspective, has caused quite a stir."

So much of a stir, in fact, that President Barack Obama paid a visit to the Peoria Caterpillar facility in February to promote his economic stimulus plan.

During that visit, Dan Armstrong became the voice of those layed off. He was invited to introduce President Obama.

"We need to get our jobs back both here in Peoria and in our country, and I know that the leaders standing here with us today are working very hard to do that," Armstrong said.

The layoff will affect about 2,500 people in central Illinois. Fifteen hundred of those jobs are on production lines. And the newly unemployed will lift unemployment in the area from 6.3 percent to rougly 7.3 percent

Despite the large numbers of people looking for work, McConoughey says Peoria is still doing better than other parts of the country.

"We're in a recession. And it's raining hard here. But it is a very diversified number of jobs. Folks still need health care, they still need banking services, and they still need retail and we have all of those pieces put together here in our economym," McConoughey states.

Many available jobs require more training or education. That requires time, which is in short supply for Dan Armstrong.

First, he needs to find a part time job to make ends meet. And he needs to get ready to plant crops at a time when commodity prices have fallen.

"It's hard to find a job right now to take the place of that job right now," Armstrong says, "My wife needs to get more of a full time job to help out that way then and she's working too."

Despite the challenges, Armstrong manages to put a positive spin on the situation.

"You just kind of keep busy and appreciate the things that you do have," Armstrong added. "You got your health and your family, you do what you have to save money here and there."

And he still hopes he will be back on the job at Caterpillar in months, rather than years.
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