Former RIM employees get help from Waterloo region in their job search

WATERLOO, Ont. – Thousands of Canadians have been left jobless as BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion struggles to overcome a number of hurdles, but the City of Waterloo hopes a jobs centre it opened this week will help some of the unlucky ones.

As word spreads about the Tech Jobs Connex centre, which opened its doors at City Hall on Monday, a trickle of former RIM employees have called to meet with organizers in hopes they will be quickly catapulted back into a position at another tech company.

“When it did happen it was not a surprise,” said Tunde Obatolu, one of the RIM employees who was handed a pink slip in August.

“But the fact remains that no matter whoever you are, you can never be too prepared for that kind of disruption happening in your life.”

Obatolu worked at the company for six and a half years and watched from the inside as RIM began to face some of its biggest challenges, including delays in the release of its new BlackBerry devices and its crumbling stock price.

After he was laid off, Obatolu, a father of two, wanted to return to the jobs market as quickly as possible, which is why he set up a meeting at the jobs centre on Thursday.

The organizers of Tech Jobs Connex say they hope that’s something that many other former RIM employees will consider in the coming weeks as the jobs centre looks to minimize the negative impact of the 3,000 locals who have been laid off at the company this year.

RIM (TSX:RIM) announced in June that it would cut 5,000 employees worldwide as part of an effort to save $1 billion by the end of its fiscal year in February 2013. More than half of the company’s 16,500 employees — about 9,000 — work in the Waterloo region.

The jobs centre project is a partnership between the Ontario and municipal governments as well as other local groups, including Communitech, an organization that rallies behind local tech companies.

Waterloo has long been known as a tech town anchored by the BlackBerry brand, and as the company tightens its operations some of the ex-employees have even landed jobs at the centre helping their former colleagues. Anyone who walks through the door will first be met by administrator Su Low, a RIM employee who was laid off in August 2011.

Low said sometimes she finds that her ties to RIM work are the perfect icebreaker with recently laid off employees who can range from being “very upbeat” to “understandably in shock” about their situation.

“Usually when I say that you just see their shoulders relax because they immediately know: ‘This person knows what I’m going through right now’,” she said.

Outside the jobs centre, Communitech has hosted a series of technology job fairs to link ex-RIM workers with other companies in the region.

Girisha Perera credits one of those events as the way she landed a position at Kitchener, Ont.-based educational software company Desire2Learn where she monitors network infrastructure.

“The day I was laid off I got information (about the job fair),” she said.

“It was much more than I expected, a very casual atmosphere, and there were so many companies that I didn’t know were in the area.”

Perera said that while losing her job at RIM was a temporary setback, she credits the company for being forthcoming with its intention to cut staff.

“I think they prepared the community and the ex-employees so much for the layoffs,” she said. “It was not a horrible, devastating thing because there was so much support from the community.”

But she adds: “Had I not attended the job fair, I would probably still be looking.”

Iain Klugman, the chief executive of Communitech, says the jobs centre is a unique project because these jobs programs are typically reserved for massive layoffs at auto plants and mining companies.

He says the former RIM employees all have very specific skill sets, ranging from developers and quality assurance representatives, to sales and marketing people.

“You name it, (and they) are walking in,” Klugman said.

“They are pretty much all very well-educated, global company experience, white collar workers.”

Communitech says there are more than 1,000 other tech companies in the region, which has also seen a burst of startups since RIM began its layoffs, with more than 100 new companies registering with the organization since July.

Klugman said the community has also started to get more attention from international firms who are looking to capitalize on the rush of job seekers.

“As people put a different kind of spotlight on RIM, they’re also starting to also look a little deeper into Waterloo region,” he said.

“We’re seeing a bunch of technology companies outside the country who are saying ‘We really would love to have access to some of that great talent that’s coming out of RIM. We’re thinking of putting a development team up in your area.'”

Meanwhile, RIM is focusing on becoming a leaner operation as it pushes ahead with the launch of its much-delayed new BlackBerry smartphones and operating system, expected early next year.

The company, which posted a quarterly loss of US$235 million in its second quarter, anticipates a further operating loss in the third quarter as it works through the transition.