BlackBerry dream fades in Halifax, leaving unemployed workers struggling
A Canadian flag flies at BlackBerry's headquarters in Waterloo, Ont., Tuesday, July 9, 2013. A major deadline in the battle for BlackBerry's future is set for Monday, and will likely reveal how many outsiders want — or can afford to — get their hands on the Canadian smartphone maker. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Geoff Robins)
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, December 14, 2013 9:42AM EST
HALIFAX -- Misty Legge and her husband Matthew had hopes for a bright future when they packed their bags six years ago and left their native Newfoundland and Labrador for jobs at the BlackBerry office in Halifax.
Now unemployed, the young couple are struggling to find comparable work in the city.
"I never dreamed this would happen," says Misty, who secured a technical support job at BlackBerry (TSX:BB) fresh out of community college in St. John's, N.L., and had planned on a long career at the smartphone firm.
BlackBerry was poised to be the darling of the tech sector in Halifax when it opened its doors in the suburb of Bedford in 2006. The Waterloo, Ont.-based company was lured by millions in provincial subsidies with the hopes of creating up to 1,200 high-paying jobs.
Such optimism was crushed on Oct. 10, when BlackBerry announced it would close its Halifax office, laying off about 350 people.
Legge, 27, says she loved her job, the people she worked with and the proximity to her family in her home province. She says she still wants to stay on the East Coast, as does her husband, who says he wants to use the expertise he gained as a software support specialist in Nova Scotia.
But Matthew says the city is teeming with former employees of BlackBerry and other tech firms that recently laid off staff.
If job prospects don't improve early next year, he says he and others will look outside the province for work.
"A lot of us are going to leave," said the 31-year-old. "That's the bottom line."
Johnathan Rhynold, 26, is another former BlackBerry worker trying to find a job in his home province as a software support specialist with pay and benefits similar to that provided by his past employer.
He bought his house in what he describes as the "golden days" after BlackBerry set up shop.
"There are moments when you're sitting alone and you think about everything and it's like a wave," he said. "It's overwhelming."
BlackBerry spokeswoman Rebecca Freiburger said the company isn't tracking how many former employees have found jobs but websites such as LinkedIn indicate they are finding work.
The decision to close down the Halifax office was a hard one, Freiburger said in an email.
"We are doing what we can, when we can, to assist those impacted," she said.
The company recently assisted the province with a job fair in an effort to line up former employees with other local work.
Chrissy Matheson, a spokeswoman for the province's Labour and Advanced Education Department, said employers at the job fair have told the department they were pleased with the resumes they received and were confident "employment connections" would be made.
She said there will be a one-month and three-month followup and the province will then have a better idea of how successful the laid-off workers were in finding jobs.
There are former BlackBerry staff who are trying to create their own opportunities.
Jay Steele, who left the firm seven months ago, said the expertise gleaned from BlackBerry's research and development division in Halifax is leading to startup companies.
He has hired three of his former colleagues to help him create Eyeball Inc., a social media company that would share photos and other information about young amateur sports players and their supporters.
"I took (BlackBerry's closure) as an opportunity, maybe a kick in the pants, to get out there and start something new and do something exciting and fun," said Steele, 41.
Steele says his experience at BlackBerry has given him the background he needs to launch such his venture, as it will be designed to run on mobile devices, and he has been able to raise financing from venture capitalists who remain confident in the province's prospects.
Positions at BlackBerry were relatively well-paid ones, thanks in part to almost $11 million in provincial payroll rebates from Nova Scotia Business Inc., the province's business lending agency, as of the end of February 2012.
In February of this year, the province's former NDP government said the company could receive up to $10 million over five years if it kept at least 400 jobs in Nova Scotia at an average salary of $60,000.
Expectations for similar wages will have to fall, Rhynold says.
"I feel like it was almost a bubble," Rhynold said. "It was this unsustainable bubble that was placed in our economy."
Freiburger said about 30 employees will remain in BlackBerry's Halifax office until January, and about 30 people will continue working for the company from home.