Ford lures workers out with cash. Is that a good thing?

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When I saw Tuesday's front page New York Times story on Ford's pedal-to-the-metal drive to move its bloated hourly workforce to accept buyouts, I buckled up for another pothole-strewn, auto sector downer story. But then I read the thing, and found it surprisingly positive, touting the creativity, raw dollar value and long-term commitment Ford has put on the table with its latest, up-the-ante packages.

To wit: "And the company's paternalistic culture still lingers in the way workers often refer to the company as "Ford's," in reference to the family that provided them a comfortable income." (This is the reporter's copy, not a quote from a Ford exec or friendly analyst.)

The numbers do look pretty good. Cash payouts as high as $140,000, generous tuition assistance and extended health care coverage are among the latest options Ford is offering.

Among the materials being given to workers is a DVD encouraging them to consider a new path (sometimes a fairly radical one, like franchise ownership), featuring real-life success stories of Ford workers who accepted earlier buyouts. The Times story further characterized Ford's on-site job fairs as quality affairs, more than the typical going- through-the-motions outplacement exercises.

I wish Ford and its GM and Chrysler brethren would go deeper than just exposing the idea of new possibilities to those it so desperately wishes to be rid of. There are now scores of tools and sophisticated career coaches who are particularly skilled at helping people uncover what they really want (and are best equipped) to do next, for example. It's one thing to put something there, and quite another to see it through.

Going the next step, what about the special needs of workers closer to traditional retirement age? This hybrid group is sure to include both those who need (or want) to continue to work, and others who think they're ready to call it quits – plus, another, overlapping group who may think they know what they want, but could use the right kind of guidance to reflect on their situation and plan next steps. Here is where those career coaches and self-guided tools can be truly invaluable in helping people being asked to radically alter their lives ask themselves the right questions about their current circumstances, and their future.

To borrow from GM, when it comes to downsizing, what's good for Ford is not good for America. Ford's latest move is a sad, somewhat desperate new liquid diet geared to exorcize the fat, and blaze a trail back to competitiveness (for leadership, the bell may well have already tolled). If the current buyout acceptance rate was to Ford's liking, of course there'd be no bigger bucks, no creative financing, no deeper dive into outplacement assistance.

But as they say, you take it wherever (and however) you can get it.

Michael Burnham is CEO of My Next Phase, a consulting firm offering non-financial retirement planning products and services (www.mynextphase.com).


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