Grand Falls-Windsor -
Merv Peyton used to drive a forklift and load large rolls of paper onto ships from South America and European ports at the AbitibiBowater pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor.
That was until rumours of the mill shutting down became an all-to-real actuality March 28, and the Botwood stevedore lost his job - as did 743 other permanent workers.
Government severance and employment insurance bought him a small window of time to think about the future.
The mill closure was followed by the announcement of a host of Human Resources Labour and Employment (HRLE) programs to help displaced workers retrain in other fields. A friend at Corona College in Grand Falls-Windsor suggested Peyton take the college's hard rock mining course.
Though nervous about pursuing something completely different at the age of 49, Peyton decided it was now or never.
"Most fellows were looking at heavy equipment," he said, "but I thought, not everybody's going to get work at that, so I decided to try it."
The program started in June and ended in October, with one month's on-the-job training at the Duck Pond copper-zinc mining operation near Millertown.
Peyton was hoping he would find work somewhere after the course, but he wasn't counting on anything. The company he trained with, Teck Resources, didn't expect to be hiring because of the poor economy and the low value of minerals.
But two weeks ago, he got a phone call from the company offering him a full-time contract until April.
"She told me they had a service position available underground and was I interested in starting work Wednesday morning," said Peyton. "I said, 'Can you repeat that, please?' You could have knocked me over with a feather. It was a very nice surprise. I said, 'OK, I'll be there.'"
He had been concerned he would have to look for work out of province.
"Most everywhere, employers were saying, 'Not right now, the economy is too slow, probably in the new year.' ... If you were willing to move away to go to work, there was a few jobs."
College representative Sean Cooper said Peyton's story proves it's never too late to retrain.
"Here's a 49-year-old who made the transfer of those skills from working with Abitibi to becoming a hard rock miner - from forestry to mining. It shows that the skills are transferable," he said.
Peyton said most of the students taking the course with him were much younger, but the greatest challenge for him wasn't changing careers late in life, or even learning new skills. The biggest obstacle was the struggle to get financial help with his education.
"I did expect it to be easier to get funding," he said. "With all the government hype saying they had all this stuff set up and Abitibi workers could go right on into this retraining - just go to (Human Resources Labour and Employment) and Service Canada, they are all there to help you. Well, they were all there to help, all right, but once I got past the counsellors here it was an uphill fight."
Peyton acknowledged the employment counsellors bent over backwards but he felt their superiors were not convinced the switch from pulp and paper to mining would be a success, and the onus was on him to prove otherwise.
"Right up until the time I signed the papers, they were saying, 'Are you sure you want to do this? Because there's no jobs in mining and there's no money in mining,' and 'If you are serious about doing this course then find every job opening you can and come back.'
"Then they wanted to know what the rates were. You have to contact different employers and see what their outlook is, and if they are hiring. They told me I had a lot better chance if I had everything in detail."
Peyton jumped through every hoop put in front of him, which he said amounted to a month-long process of signing papers and doing his own market research. He went back to HRLE with a stack of papers an inch thick, including job postings for employers from here to Australia looking to hire.
His research was so thorough, the department wanted to keep a copy of it to show other candidates.
"I told them if I get the funding, then yes, you can copy it. If not, don't touch it."
He did receive 90 per cent funding in the end, but Peyton advises, "If you're looking for funding be prepared for a fight, because it's a lot of work."