Surviving the pink slip

It’s been a tough year for 27-year-old Stephan Koledin. On June 7, he was laid off from his software development job at The Motley Fool Inc. in Alexandria, Va. Since then, it’s been a roller-coaster ride of shotgun Web searches, sure things gone bad, freelance work and unintriguing prospects. He was even rehired and then laid off again.

The result: a new outlook, hard-won wisdom and a new game plan.

Koledin is just one of the more than half a million IT workers who were laid off during the first 10 months of last year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., an outplacement firm in Chicago. The number of IT professionals looking for work on Dice.com, the oldest and most heavily used IT job board on the Web, has increased 50 per cent over 2000, says Scot Melland, CEO of Dice Inc. in New York.

The regions most heavily affected have been the strong technology centres, including the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, New York and Austin, Texas. The hardest-hit IT areas have been consumer or front-end technologies such as Web development.

“The demise of the dot-coms took away a lot of those jobs,” Melland says.

That’s what happened at Motley Fool, where Koledin was caught in the second of several rounds of layoffs last year. “Certainly, I was a little disappointed, but also kind of relieved,” he says. “Things had been going downhill, and it gets depressing working in an empty building with all the empty desks.”

Being laid off taught him to be more skeptical about the business side of a company, he says, explaining, “Financials are not always as good as they appear.”

Koledin had a reasonable severance package to fall back on. More important, he had prospects. The day of the layoff, a manager passed him a tip on a start-up hardware maker interested in hiring him.

Koledin contacted the start-up, liked what he heard and began discussions about the work and the salary. “It looked like a done deal,” he says. But a month later, without warning, the start-up stopped returning his calls, and that was that. “It was very strange,” he says.

Having inadvertently wasted a month, Koledin began a blanket search of postings on all the big Internet job boards. He says he got offers from federal contractors but wasn’t inspired by the jobs. In the Washington area, Koledin says, “there certainly is work if you’re not too fussy. But you end up doing the same projects you did before but for different companies.”

Nor did Koledin find anything interesting enough for him to relocate. By early August, he was doing some independent contracting to pay the rent when he got an invitation from Motley Fool to come back as a full-time software developer. “It was great work; I was happy to do it,” he says. “And I was running out of that money thing.”

Koledin had no illusions about longevity. “I saw this as a way to stall, at least through the winter, while looking for something else,” he says. But that wasn’t to be. He hadn’t been on the job a month when another layoff was announced.

This time, there was no shock, he says. A co-worker compared the news to stepping on gum on the sidewalk: “It’s just kind of annoying, but no one’s too emotionally upset,” he explains.

Koledin has decided to move back to his hometown, Pittsburgh. He’s been networking with people and groups such as the local technology council and chamber of commerce. He’s investigating what kind of work companies are doing, where they’re expanding and whether they can use his skills. He’s approaching Pittsburgh employers through job postings that may not even be a good fit, just to get some face time with people inside.

Koledin is convinced that his original big-net approach was a mistake. “Just hitting the job-search engines and headhunters isn’t really geared toward getting a job you want,” he says, adding that targeting specific employers seems to be working better. When last seen, he was headed to Pittsburgh for an interview.

“Instead of fishing in a lake, it’s a tank,” Koledin says. “There may be only three fish in the tank, but I think there’s a much better chance of catching something good.”

Sleepless in Seattle

In Seattle, Marguerite Payne, fiftysomething years old, is getting really discouraged. “I’ve been through three of these [layoffs] over the last three years,” she says.

Her last job was as a program manager at License Online Inc. in Bellevue, Wash. The company configured and sold licences for Microsoft Corp.’s products through the Web, but she says her job wasn’t very technical. Last fall, her position was merged with one that required more technical skills, and she was out.

“I was really worried,” she says. “And all my worst fears came true.”

Payne called recruiters she knew from hiring employees at License Online. She used the Internet, alumni associations, state of Washington resources and references from friends. “I have a database of more than 3,000 contacts,” she says.

She tried to backdoor her way in, applying for jobs that didn’t really interest her with the hope of selling herself through the process. No dice.

Once, Payne was told that she “didn’t appear to have sufficient energy.” Another time she was “not a cultural fit.” One interviewer said the job had been filled, only to repost the opening later. There were even interview appointments where no one showed up to talk with her.

“I can’t figure out whether these people are rude, obnoxious, stupid, incompetent or all of the above,” Payne says. “And it’s not that I don’t have the skills; I do!”

The trouble is that her skills aren’t an exact fit with the skills companies want. “People are just not able to see how my skills are transferable,” she says. “Today, it seems to require an exact match to be looked at for the job. A lot of talent and skill is being wasted.”

Payne is convinced her age is the key to her problems. “One of the saddest things going on right now is the total discrimination against older workers,” she says.

Even so, networking finally paid off. Thanks to the referral of a friend, Payne started work in July as a contractor at Microsoft, working on its next-generation contact centre. But the respite is tentative. “It’s day-to-day and could be eliminated anytime,” she says. If that happens, Payne will go back to her network. “Skill, ability and knowledge have nothing to do with whether you get a job,” she says. “It has to do with who you know.”

Soul Searching

For Richard Wren, 57, being laid off was an opportunity to take stock.

Wren was an IT manager at Aspect Communications Corp. in San Jose, working mostly from his home in Boulder, Colo., when a company restructuring left him and most of his colleagues out of work last May.

The instant lesson learned, Wren says, was “if you’re a tech person and want to continue to be, the key is to be closer to the real work, not just management.”

Since Wren had done environmental work years before and had continued to be involved as a volunteer, he decided it was time to try to integrate his professional skills with his avocational passion.

“I’ve reached the junction where I’d like to have something that will allow me to do things into my 60s and 70s that have some salary attached but are rewarding,” Wren says.

Toward that end, he’s expanding his volunteer activities with organizations such as Boulder County Parks and Open Space, and he’s getting plugged into national organizations such as The Nature Conservancy that might have long-term, paid positions requiring both technical and naturalist skills.

“I’m really trying to fuse those together,” Wren says. “There seem to be opportunities in the large organizations. They’re frequently looking for people but not for (US)$100,000-a-year jobs.”

That’s OK, because at this point, satisfaction is more important than a huge paycheque, he says. Meanwhile, he’s also attempting to supplement his income by applying for grants to fund environmental fieldwork studies. “Five thousand [dollars] here, US$10,000 there it adds up,” Wren says.

Looking back to May, Wren says he wishes he had gotten serious a little more quickly, because some organizations that were hiring earlier have freezes on now. But he’s not worried. “I figure out of all of this, some good thing will happen,” he says.

Silver Linings

“The good news is that even with the tech slowdown and layoffs, there is still a lot of demand for tech professionals,” says Scot Melland, CEO of Dice, an online technical job board. “There are more than 40,000 job opportunities on our site alone.”

The most popular job titles on Dice.com include software engineer, applications programmer and business analyst. Specialties that remain strong are back-end, money-saving areas like networking, database administration and help desk work. Ironically, the geographic regions with the most jobs to offer are those experiencing the most layoffs: technology centres such as Silicon Valley, New York and Boston.

But Melland stresses that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of IT positions are actually found in non-IT companies. “Demand is still strong in the tech departments of major corporations, with a back-end, back-office focus,” he says, “Companies are looking for experience and proven skill sets. The best way to portray yourself is based on experience in specific project areas.”

Melland predicts that IT projects now on hold will move forward once there’s less business uncertainty. “At that point, we’ll see demand going up pretty quickly,” he says. “But I would expect to see more demand for contractors on the front end. Companies will pull in contractors before they’ll pull in full-timers.”