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The world of the laid-off techie.
February 11, 2002 2:56 AM   Subscribe

The world of the laid-off techie. "Human resource experts say the underemployment trend in the current economic cycle is just starting to emerge. Many workers got the ax when mass layoffs peaked in the summer and fall of 2001, and they coasted on several months of severance and unemployment insurance, which generally lasts six months. With the tech job market still in the doldrums, they're now considering new gigs as waitresses, bartenders, forklift drivers or baby sitters--anything to pay the rent. " I wish the media hadn't/didn't focus so much attention on the suits who seem to only be able to "fail upwards" versus the folks in the trenches. (via /.)
posted by owillis (64 comments total)

 
Yep. I got laid off the summer of 2001, got lousy severance, waited tables until I couldn't take it anymore and now I'm working as an administrative temp, doing monkey work for shit money.

This quote from the article sums it up pretty well for me: "I felt like I was in high school again. I felt like I was 16 or 18 again being told how to work..."

In the time I've been temping, I've worked with one other out of work tech writer, and a woman with a history degree from Duke who can't find a job either. I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or not.
posted by jennyb at 6:10 AM on February 11, 2002


I'm not suggesting you should be waiting tables or temping, but...maybe you were overemployed before? Lots of people's job expectations are based on coming on board during a tulip craze, so to speak.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:19 AM on February 11, 2002


Who wouldn't hire this guy?
posted by Mutha at 6:22 AM on February 11, 2002


That article reads like my life since August 15, 2001. I was laid-off by a software company and given only 2 weeks severance and my remaining 11 days of vacation pay. My health insurance was cut off the next day, with my second child due in three weeks. I had to find a job immediately. Now I am a contract employee for a pharmaceutical company. One minute I feel like my brain is melting from boredom/tedium and I hate my job, and the next minute I feel like smacking myself because I should be grateful I even have a job.

What really sucked is I had found my dream job. I had been doing PC & Network Administration/Support/Consulting for 8 years and decided to make a slight career change and go into QA work (they needed people with a networking background). I loved it, and I loved the corporate culture there.

I have been applying for every Network Admin job I see and I have had only 3 interviews in 5 months.
posted by internal at 7:15 AM on February 11, 2002


ParisParamus: Thanks for the vote of confidence, but no, I was not overemployed.

I did make the questionable decision to move to an area of the country that claims to have been hit hardest by the declining economy, a claim that has comprised the headlines of the front page of the "Career" section of the local paper every Sunday since I got here. Between that, my propensity of moving every couple years, and being a fresh Yankee in the midst of the xenophobic US south, I excepted finding a job would be difficult. I didn't expect it would be this difficult.
posted by jennyb at 7:31 AM on February 11, 2002


But hidden behind the not-so-grim unemployment rate is a harsher reality: Many workers are waiting out the downturn in jobs that are far below their previous salaries or professional aspirations. ...

"I'm seeing people take jobs they don't want or even like ..."


Falling from the ranks of the anointed white-collar fortunates must be painful. But the "harsher reality" so sympathetically explored in the story is the lot in life of many, if not most, working Americans.

Work sucks, in some way, for most people. It's why they have to pay you to show up.
posted by sacre_bleu at 7:36 AM on February 11, 2002


Thre months ago on a tech mailing list I frequent the conversation turned to employment. One of the best employees I(and many of the other people on the list) had ever dealt with mentioned casually that he was seeking work, and had been for three months. This guy was literally a fixture in his field of expertise, and is easily one of the most knowledgable people in his area. And can't find work. I was stunned that someone so obviously skilled, and with such a public record of dedication, would not be snatched up, in any market.

Times like this make me glad I've never been able to find a decent job, and have been fortunate to be literally forced onto the self-employment track for 15 years.
posted by dglynn at 7:59 AM on February 11, 2002


Two years ago a friend of mine got a job as a network administrator at a big company in the bay area. He worked his ass off there but he would complain to me that his co-workers (other admins) would spend most of their time surfing the internet, playing online games, and basically wasting time unless an emergency arose. Then the market started to go down...then Sept 11th happened and everyone (yes, everyone) in his department was fired except him. Did the higher-ups notice who was really working and who was goofing off? Probably yes. Should any of those people be surprised if they can't get work? Nope.

I am sure this type of story doesn't apply to anyone here...
posted by plaino at 8:30 AM on February 11, 2002


It doesn't apply to me. Ditto jennyb! Clearly I was overemployed. After learning 2 foreign languages and getting the master's degree, why shouldn't I be competing with 19-year-olds for $7/hr. jobs, and advised that I need to *go into debt for more education*? And to think I was looking towards network administration as a route towards a living wage!

Some professions are sufficiently specialized that it takes 3-6 months to find a match in good times, a year in tough times. I expect to see more articles like this one as people laid off from professional jobs start hitting the 6 month unemployment benefit limit.
posted by sheauga at 8:53 AM on February 11, 2002


Forgive a bit of a rant ...

" ... I wish the media hadn't/didn't focus so much attention on the suits who seem to only be able to "fail upwards" versus the folks in the trenches..."

"... I'm not suggesting you should be waiting tables or temping, but...maybe you were overemployed before? Lots of people's job expectations are based on coming on board during a tulip craze, so to speak..."

Speaking on behalf of all employed, failed upward suits, it's weird to be blamed when your company goes out of business, blamed when you lay people off to keep from going out of business, cursed for managing companies, and then cursed because - as a manager - you don't give jobs to, and keep jobs for, people that think you owe them jobs.

ParisParamus's point is a good one. The labor market was a seller's market a couple of years ago. Managers had to beg for people with even mediocre qualifications, and offer all manner of signing bonuses and inducements to get and retain people. Didn't hear anyone complaining when the job market was tilted considerably in their favor - well, what's going on right now is the other side of the same coin.

The bigger issue, however, is that attitudes have been determined by a booming economy, and have not adjusted. A considerable number of people act as though they are somehow entitled to a fulfilling job. An example ... from a Blog (not picking on anyone, just using this for illustration):

" ... All these big company meetings tell me is that upper management can afford to buy nicer clothes than I can, and somebody on their administrative staff has a basic grasp of Power Point ... But I don't quit! I just go back to my desk and do a really half-assed job..."

For what it's worth, speaking as a manager that had to lay off close to 1/3 of his staff a couple of months ago - this attitude is completely evident (it radiates off of people like a bad smell). In making the rough choices about who to keep and who to let go, I selected based 50% on skill sets, and 50% on strength of character. I had people that were fine so long as they had their ideal jobs, and everything was fulfilling. I also had people that inevitably stepped up to the plate, who didn't act as though any jobs were "beneath" them, but rather did everything they did - from the menial to the strategic - with focus and perfectionism. All other things being equal, guess who I layed off, and who I kept?

Even further (again, simply a management perspective), the boom economy produced a good number of prima donnas - people with impressive degrees that really didn't add that much value, but thought they were entitled to salary and bonus increases year after year, simply because if they even started to look around, they'd have five job offers in a week. I had to keep them, and pay them, because there just wasn't that many people that much better available. By the same token, even during the boom, talent and initiative in "lesser" jobs stood out. I had a secretary that was doing a look of menial paperwork. She didn't however, do a half-assed job - but instead came to me with quite an interesting pitch for automating a lot of her menial paperwork in one small area. I gave her a green light and a small budget - and in all of three months arranged with a few of my peers to jump her from Admin Assistant directly to VP, with the budget to implement in a mich wider sphere.

There are no menial jobs - only menial mindsets. It's funny to see character traits emerge early. Even at University, I remember kids that had part time jobs in the cafeteria as cooks and busboys. Some of them had the "entitlement" attitude ("this is a nothing job for college money, I'll do the minimum possible, and certainly don't respect my boss, who is a full time foodservice employee and clearly beneath me"). Others, however, took it seriously. Didn't matter that it was flipping burgers. They flipped them well. They acted as though they were being paid to do work, and gave an honest day of it. Funny thing is that if you give them both MBA's from a top school, all that will do is elevate the same underlying character traits to a different level of the corporate world ... and managers can tell the difference.

"Overemployed" is not just a matter of skills ... it is also attitude. When it came to crunch time, I had people that thought their qualifications and education meant companies owed them a living, and others that came in every day with the attitude that it was a priviledge to have work, appreciated the jobs they had, and acted as though they had to prove themselves every day. Not hard to imagine who is still employed, and who is gone.
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:25 AM on February 11, 2002 [2 favorites]


Funny thing is that if you give them both MBA's from a top school, all that will do is elevate the same underlying character traits to a different level of the corporate world ... and managers can tell the difference.

Agreed. I'm a university kid in a superfancy CS program, and this sentiment is exactly what keeps me sane. It's startling, the number of kids here who say "I'm getting such-and-such a degree, I'm gonna be working wherever I want, doing whatever I want!" As they say, I'm waiting for these soaring dreamers to land in the cold ocean of reality. Nice post, Midas.
posted by Succa at 9:32 AM on February 11, 2002


Thank you, MidasMulligan. Great post.
posted by internal at 9:55 AM on February 11, 2002


Midas, the people I'm talking about who "failed upwards" are in my case a bunch of management no-nothings who couldn't see the futility of the company's business plan even while the staff at large tried to redirect them again and again. They never listened. Why? It was a chorus full of brown nosers who refused to tell each other anything was wrong. Instead they slapped backs saying "Golly gee Tim, you're doing a phenomenal job".

Of course, fast forward a couple months and the company has vanished into the ether.

Though the fate of the company lay almost completely on their stupidity and inability to see the market as anyone could - these yahoos fail upwards into positions either at the same level or above what they had before. There's no "black mark" on their record even though they ran a company into the ground.

It's as if you had an energy company and Ken Lay applied and you went : "Come on in, Kenny Boy. We're just going to assume the media was against you and give you another CEO position. No harm, no foul".

So no, I don't ever felt I was "owed" any sort of job. I come from a tradition of folks (Jamaican) who gets derided by many because we're willing to take whatever job is available to make a living. Our noses aren't stuck up in the air. But when someone in management's shit stinks, I think someone should point out it smells as bad as everyone elses - possibly worse since they were/are the general in charge of everyone else. Instead it seems to smell like roses.
posted by owillis at 9:56 AM on February 11, 2002


Thanks Midas for making so well the point I fumbled over in my post.
posted by plaino at 10:13 AM on February 11, 2002


Definitely good points, MidasMulligan, although your post reads like excerpts from a corporate management guide. Thank you for quoting my website. I'm sorry you missed some of the sarcasm (not to mention the Simpson's reference, but that was kind of an obscure in joke thing).

I feel like it would be pointless to defend my work ethic, or talk about how cynical, angry, and depressed losing a job and not being able to find another in your field can make you. Having held management positions, I know how distanced you have to make yourself from the people you manage, and how much you have to convince yourself they deserved everything they get.

People who can grin and love every minute of a demoralizing, demeaning, low paying job have an ability to shut out reality that I guess I lack. If that keeps me working admin jobs for the rest of my life, I suppose my skills, education, and bad attitude will just have to get used to it.

(FYI, after four rounds of layoffs, the company I worked for is toast. But I'm sure everybody that worked there was a slack bitch who got what was coming to them.)
posted by jennyb at 10:17 AM on February 11, 2002


"There are no menial jobs - only menial mindsets"

This is a gross oversimplification. There are menial jobs, and I have done them. Some of them were okay, some of them sucked (mostly dependent on the people I worked for). They were all necessary at the time ... however, the whole "Arbeit Macht Frei" meme is just as broken as "the world owes me a job."

There are lots of companies (most of them it seems) that treat employees as fungible assets, to be disposed of whenever "market conditions" demand it. There is essentially no loyalty to the employee, but the employer still demands it.

I think there has to be a new social compact that exchanges employee loyalty for decent treatment by employers. Just look at the whole Enron thing - it came out that they paid out $55 million in "retention bonuses" to executives at the same time they were dismantling the severance package system in place for everyone else.

Now, do I think that is ever going to happen? Nope. I expect that companies will continue to expect their workers to work themselves to death for the priveledge of their paychecks, as well as saying "Thanks!" when they get pink-slipped.
posted by Irontom at 10:49 AM on February 11, 2002


Thank you, IronTom. Great post.
posted by asok at 11:07 AM on February 11, 2002


Typical management solpsism. “It couldn’t be us suits fault that you’re outta work—must be your bad attitude.” As if I’d done my Dick Van Dyke routine at work everyday the suits wouldn’t have blown through $30 million in two years. Yea, yea, that’s my fault. Sure, sure.

“there are no menial jobs”

Only some who has the ability to hire someone to do his bitch work could believe this. Just because you have enough free time to write a thousand word post during work hours doesn’t mean someone isn’t cleaning the loo.

Take that for what its worth. Career counselors tell me—in their adorably circuitous style—that my bullshit detector has low tolerance for MBAs.
posted by raaka at 11:50 AM on February 11, 2002


For every low-level employee who gets promoted for showing skill and excellence, as in MM's long post, there's 10 who experience one or more of the following:

1. Boss takes credit for the overachiever's work
2. Overachiever gets assigned more work, since her own original work load turned out to be so easy, and ends up doing the work of 3 people, but with little or no increase in pay
3. Union strongarms "encourage" the employee to diminish her productivity
4. Boss says, "why are you bothering me. This is the way we do things. If you can't do your job, I'll find someone who can."
posted by yesster at 12:37 PM on February 11, 2002


During the past several years, I have interviewed/hired a few developers. I have also looked for work during this time.

For the most part, 'quality' 'generic' business programmers should not have too difficult a time finding a job.

By generic, I mean know several languages, are comfortable doing database development on a major RDBMS (SQL Server, Oracle, MySQL), can develop objects on the middle-tier (EJB, Visual Basic), and can develop web interfaces (ASP, DHTML, Javascript, PHP, JSP).

By quality I mean, someone who showers and dresses neatly for the interview. Someone who can think critically. Someone who is interested in learning, and can learn new things quickly. Someone who knows where to go to find answers. Someone who is personable and friendly. Someone who has experience working on teams.

I agree with Midas about menial jobs. If someone blows off a menial job by doing it half-ass, more than likely they will do the same at a regular job. When you get down to it, every job at some points becomes if not menial, then at least repetitive and tedious. You have to have pride in your work product, whether at $8/hr or $75k/yr.

I am not a manager, I am a programmer. I was out of work for three weeks last Sept., and it was frustrating, like most everyone else, I was used to getting inundated with offers if I even thought about changing jobs, now I barely manage to scrape up job interviews, people don't even acknowledge your resume.

But if you are a qualified technical person, then finding a job while frustrating should not be impossible. People are hiring, it's just the sheer amount of people looking that makes it hard. When I hired a developer in Jan. of this year, I got 200 resumes for an entry level position. It's easy to miss people in that volume.
posted by patrickje at 12:51 PM on February 11, 2002


The bigger issue, however, is that attitudes have been determined by a booming economy, and have not adjusted. A considerable number of people act as though they are somehow entitled to a fulfilling job.

This is but one of the bigger issues. I know exactly what you mean about attitude, and I agree. But I have seen people get laid off who would be assets to any company -- people with the brains and the attitude to contribute anywhere, doing practically anything.

So there is something to be said from each side: There is a better way to handle the slowing economy -- adjust your expectations, seize the opportunities you find, and make the most of everything -- BUT it's also true that, even though the unemployment figures don't look that bad, some very talented people are indeed struggling, despite their abilities and regardless of their attitudes. I.e., the economy is probably worse than it looks on paper.
posted by mattpfeff at 1:05 PM on February 11, 2002


" ... Typical management solpsism. “It couldn’t be us suits fault that you’re outta work—must be your bad attitude.” As if I’d done my Dick Van Dyke routine at work everyday the suits wouldn’t have blown through $30 million in two years. Yea, yea, that’s my fault. Sure, sure..."

Obviously, though it must be the suits fault. Since everyone knows workers are all poor, pure, virtuous souls who never think of themselves, while corporations are all rich evil entities that oppress them.

Don't want to be at the whim of companies? Then bloody start one. You worked for a company capable of blowing through $30 million in two years and didn't notice? You have no responsibility for, oh, I don't know, actually analyzing the company you work for to see if it is managed well enough to stay in business? It's their fault that you're out of work? Hhhmmm.

" ... “there are no menial jobs”

Only some who has the ability to hire someone to do his bitch work could believe this. Just because you have enough free time to write a thousand word post during work hours doesn’t mean someone isn’t cleaning the loo..."


Taking the day off, as I put in two 18 hour days this weekend. Partially to fix a bad mistake made by one of the people that do my "bitch work", but couldn't be bothered to do it well.

" ... Take that for what its worth. Career counselors tell me—in their adorably circuitous style—that my bullshit detector has low tolerance for MBAs..."

To which I'll add (in a decidedly uncircuitous style) that it is apparently jammed up your ass as well - I'm not an MBA.

Interesting to see all the attitudes on this thread - interesting because as corporations ramp up to begin hiring again (as many are) ... it is quite easy to see who in this discussion will likely be grabbed immediately, and who will still be un or underemployed months from now, and complaining about the unfairness of it all.
posted by MidasMulligan at 1:16 PM on February 11, 2002


"2. Overachiever gets assigned more work, since her own original work load turned out to be so easy, and ends up doing the work of 3 people, but with little or no increase in pay."

I couldn't have said it much better, because my workplace has turned into exactly that. I have been doing the equivalent of 3 1/2 people for some time with little recognition. Sure, they have "evaluation" meetings, but to see how you compare in your managers eyes and what other employees put forth, it boggles my mind.
posted by brent at 1:24 PM on February 11, 2002


Midas, you make some decent points, and then toss any credibility you have out the window by being an arrogant ass.

There are menial jobs. Have you ever spent eight hours a day measuring out 0.002 grams of silt? Trust me, that's menial labour. Have you ever spent eight hours a day screwing the same nut onto the same bolt on 1400 of the exact same pieces of machinery? That's menial.

I certainly agree with you that there are too many people in this world who feel they deserve rewarding work just for being shot out of a uterus, but you don't have to present it as though everyone who disagrees with you would rather get their monitor fuzzied up with drool after using it as a pillow.
posted by cCranium at 1:27 PM on February 11, 2002


Oh, Midas I didn't make the point I really wanted to make: Whatever ratio you've discovered for good to bad employees also applies to management at any level.

There are managers who can guide the workflow effectively, and there are those who wander off and play golf for four hours. This isn't about employees vs. management, it's about an entire industry that got its ass handed to it on a plate, and how people are coping with that.
posted by cCranium at 1:32 PM on February 11, 2002


I'm lucky enough to have gone the reverse direction from the people in this story. After 15 years of uninspiring day jobs that paid the rent, last year I finally entered a career that I genuinely enjoy (programming). Make no mistake, working at something you enjoy is definitely a good thing which you should pursue if at all possible.

That being said, the fact is that not everyone will be able to do that. Even if everyone had the qualifications to do the really interesting jobs, someone will always be needed to take out the trash and flip the burgers. If you're in one of those uninspiring jobs, doing it well is more satisfying than doing a crap job.

Looking back, I think the worst part of any of those jobs was not the job itself, so much as the lack of respect shown for the person doing the "menial" job, both by the public and by management. It's hard to take pride in a job well done when both your customers and your boss act like you're worthless scum for being in the job in the first place. One of the hardest jobs I ever did was asst. manager for a convenience store - waiting on customers, stocking, cleaning, doing paperwork, catching shoplifters, balancing the books - all at the same time. I was good at it, but I got no respect. Later, I went to work as a corporate drone in a billing department in an employee-friendly company. The work was much easier, but I got 10 times the respect. This made the job comfortable enough that I didn't mind going in every day. I only got into the programming field (finally) because I'm addicted to learning stuff & now I get to learn cool stuff on my work hours & get paid for it.

MidasMulligan - I take your point, but perhaps if more managers showed true respect for a burger flipped well, maybe more burger-flippers would take pride in their work.
posted by tdismukes at 1:35 PM on February 11, 2002


I agree with MM that a good attitude is essential in every job, but it's not always true that you get rewarded for it. Last May I graduated with an MS in Math and found myself at a loss as to what kind of job I wanted to pursue. So lack of a career goal and lack of a car led me to work at an assisted living place nearby, changing diapers, emptying catheters, making beds, and serving meals. I worked really hard and did it quite cheerfully for the most part. But the harder I worked, the easier my boss found it to order me around and treat me like an idiot. It didn't take long for me to get fed up with being treated like dirt by people dumber than me. Fortunately, I had the option to quit, but I sure felt awful for my coworkers who were often treated worse than I was and had no choice but to keep working there.

I totally agree with tdismuskes on the respect issue.
posted by jojo at 1:45 PM on February 11, 2002


word. How about getting paid 70k to work as hard as humanly possible for >80/wk and *then* getting laid off? I think there is a popular myth that the 'jokers' or incompetents are the ones loosing their jobs. Not always true. At least in my sphere people that worked hard (80-100hr weeks) and got paid only ok ($70k for a 40hr week is much more than $70k for a 80hr week) looking towards a stock options situation that would make it worthwhile. In my case, my company never went public, the work situation became worse, they fired people to cut costs and added projects to increase revenue until it became f*cking impossible to deal with and as a reward for sticking it out all you got was fired later on, when it would be harder to find a job.

Who was responsible for this in my case? Management. Every SA working at my shop had a bigger clue than our Management. Period. They screwed up and a bunch of people lost their jobs... risk or no risk.

I have about 9 friends who are software developers. We all had great jobs two years ago and now only two of us have jobs at all. The other seven are __better__ coders than I am and are willing to take any kind of job not to have to move out of NYC. There are none to be found.

Also, I attended the Arsdigita University last year. Very high profile, superintensive Computer Science degree-type program for people who already have some experience. A lot of folks from there are killing themselves to find a job with no luck.
posted by n9 at 1:49 PM on February 11, 2002


.... his co-workers (other admins) would spend most of their time surfing the internet, playing online games, and basically wasting time unless an emergency arose.

I wonder how many of those admins were having the same experience I had in the dotcom world as a web developer: spending all my time at a job trying to get clear answers to questions like -- Whom am I supposed to be reporting to and getting assignments from? What projects am I supposed to be working on? Who's going to train me on your proprietary in-house technologies? What am I supposed to be doing?

I'd get fired for being a slacker, for spending my time surfing the Internet, after spending months begging for work and being frustrated at every turn. Makes me heartsick.
posted by webmutant at 1:52 PM on February 11, 2002


Generally speaking, I agree with Midas, but I don't think people should ever be content if they're in jobs that are beneath their potential. It doesn't mean that they shouldn't do a good job while they're there; only that they shouldn't be satisfied with mediocrity in the long term.
posted by lizs at 2:29 PM on February 11, 2002


MidasMulligan, you sound like you might be a good manager. Frankly, in my years of working, I have encountered very few of them. I'd often arrive at a job excited and ready to do my best, only to be beaten back by indifference from the management after six months. The worst was a job with a chain bookseller where my manager sat in the back room all day and delegated all his responsibilities to me, but neglected to tell the other employees that I had any kind of authority on the floor. I wound up doing all the work in the department, as well as the three other jobs I held in the store. I received neither management support nor monetary support. I've also worked at at least two jobs where the glass ceiling was firmly installed, and no matter how well I performed I was not going to be advancing at those companies. It would be a wonderful world if all workplaces were as egalitarian as you seem to think they are, and people were at least appreciated (not to mention compensated) for their work and input, but my experience says they're not.
posted by kittyloop at 2:49 PM on February 11, 2002


I've had a pretty different experience than many here. After a very long period of working at service jobs (mostly graveyard shift) and being rewarded on the "work is its own reward" plan, I got hired as a sales person in the computer department of an educational reseller. 5 years later, I am an IT manager. I work my ass off, but I'm well paid for the area, I enjoy what I do, and I don't accept that I have to work extra hours just to please my boss. Sometimes, you have to work your way up to get what you want. But I'm fortunate; I clearly realize that I had managers over me that saw the value of what I could offer. I don't believe that's the norm, and I strongly believe that most management corps do NOT make appropriate effort to keep good people. Funny, I'm not alone in thinking that.

Interesting to see all the attitudes on this thread - interesting because as corporations ramp up to begin hiring again (as many are) ... it is quite easy to see who in this discussion will likely be grabbed immediately, and who will still be un or underemployed months from now, and complaining about the unfairness of it all.

MidasMulligan, I know you're thinking that you're being attacked here, but you don't have a clue as to who in this forum is employable and who isn't. Managerial arrogance is the bane of good employees. I've hired people that showed all the frustrated signs exhibited here and they're terrific, because there is respect for their skills and a will for them to learn more. I've never asked an employee to "prove" themselves to me. I've asked them to help the company advance and those in my department along with it. In light of that managerial arrogence, its disingenious to think that any tech-worker could stop their employers from wasting money, (even $30 million). If you ain't in control, then you're being controlled, and fad thinking on the part of the suits has put more people out of work than lax attitude.
posted by Wulfgar! at 2:50 PM on February 11, 2002


I'm a freelance programmer, and have been since long before the "crash". And what I've noticed is that -- even in my rather specialized and obscure niche -- there has been much more work available post-crash than there was before.

It rather feels like a lot of companies cut staff to reduce the burn rate, then realized somebody still had to do all the work... so they're contracting it out. Which costs them more in the short term than a full-time employee would -- but maybe it's a reasonable trade-off since they don't have to pay when there's no work to be done, and since freelancers have more motivation to work efficiently and well (there's no surfing-while-waiting-to-be-told-what-to-do effect. Well, there is, but you don't get a paycheck while doing it.)

I've worked for some moron managers, and I've worked with unmotivated staff. Sometimes both at the same time. (Why do you think I became a freelancer in the first place?) But I think anybody here who wants to paint one or the other side as the Bad Guys -- like the crash is all the fault of the managers, or the crash is all the fault of the employees -- is just being obtuse... Some people in both of those groups are blameworthy, but that'd be so in any economy. We all knew the crash was coming; we all knew the market was unsustainable; people were predicting the bursting of the bubble at least a year before it actually happened. (I'm certain of that: I shorted stock way too early, and lost a bundle.)

If you want to blame anybody, blame the VC firms, for giving money to people with stupid business plans. Blame the investors who didn't know how to read a quarterly report. Blame yourself, for not cashing in on your options while you had the chance. If you had the chance.

Personally I think the crash is the best thing that could've happened -- it's washing out all the people who got into working the net because they thought they could make a quick buck. Those who are still here after we get through this rough spot are going to be the ones who wanted to be working the net because they thought it was cool even when there was no money in it -- and those are the ones I want to be working with.

<sarcasm>There, is that inflammatory enough?</sarcasm>
posted by ook at 3:17 PM on February 11, 2002


About the unemployment rate: It is not accurate. If you are employed at all, in any capacity, you're not unemployed. Possibly, you’re underemployed — aka a “discouraged worker”. If you haven't found work after six months of looking, you're not unemployed—the Department of Labor doesn't count you.

“Whatever ratio you've discovered for good to bad employees also applies to management at any level.”

That is the god's honest truth.

Look, Midas when you defend the utter integrity and charity of businessmen, but just can’t seem to find good help, it says to me I’m on the right track.

“actually analyzing the company you work for to see if it is managed”

I don’t know why I feel the need to defend myself, but I did leave before that old company went bankrupt. I was one of the lucky few that realized the place was expanding too fast I had a couple of drops of insider information. Hell, I broke the news to old friends that the place was going broke. My estimate was a couple months premature, but I was right. Some other folks, like the middle aged, six-figure crowd, didn't have a clue it was about to happen. But I guess they’re not “responsible” enough to “actually analyze the company”.
posted by raaka at 3:18 PM on February 11, 2002


p.s. ook, preach on.
posted by raaka at 3:28 PM on February 11, 2002


I'm happy to see an article which seems to be taking a closer look at this recession. I'm sick of reading/listening to stories that pull some six-figure earner out of the fray and hold them up as an example only to learn that that person was layed off but got a job within a couple weeks earning more.

I'm also tired of hearing the "techie workers having a blast with all their free time!" stuff.

However, this article still kind of plays into that.

Imagine making $100,000 a year and then foaming lattes for a living.

or

There's no question there was a lot of job inflation--the 20-somethings who were VP of marketing and all those people who shouldn't have been CEOs.

I suppose that these things have a grain of truth to them, to an extent. By and large, however, there are hundreds and hundreds of people without jobs from the tech sector who weren't making a six-figure income, who weren't banking on stock and who weren't "20-something VPs."

And, regardless of whether they "deserved" their jobs (which is a pretty disgusting notion when you're talking about a whole industry of people doing all sorts of tasks), if you've been working in the tech sector for more than a few years, then you're scrambling right now to figure out what else you're going to do. There's only so many latte-frothing jobs out there.

Christ on a bike.
posted by amanda at 3:45 PM on February 11, 2002


For a wildly alternative view of the "world of the laid-off techie," see this cover story from the current issue of Forbes. Most of you will not be pleased, as it takes the line that if you were really any good at your tech job in the first place, you'd already be reemployed by now, probably making even more money than before. Then they used a photo of a hot blonde with huge breasts on their cover (reproduced on the web page) as an example of just what sort of person Silicon Valley now considers to be "the best sort of employee," with all the photos of the dull geeky-looking Indian males buried deep inside the magazine. Talk about your mixed messages.
posted by aaron at 4:00 PM on February 11, 2002


emergence (or lack thereof!) as a systemic phenomenon might be applicable to job availability.

btw, teaching, nursing or pharmacy might be the way to go. but not dentisry :)
posted by kliuless at 4:07 PM on February 11, 2002


Re: raaka's unemployment count... According to Snopes, unemployment status is not based on unemployment insurance. Not sure if that was what you were referring to or not with the "six months" comment, but anyway...
posted by elvissinatra at 4:18 PM on February 11, 2002


By the way...

Speaking on behalf of all employed, failed upward suits, it's weird to be blamed ... blamed when you lay people off to keep from going out of business ...

Management studies routinely show that companies that do NOT lay off workers during tough times suffer less of a downturn during those recessions (because the workers aren't constantly stressing about being the next ones escorted out the door like common criminals by uniformed guards, and because the remaining employees aren't being forced to do twice the work, getting burnt out and cutting corners that the end users of your product invariably notice); and they return to full profitability much much faster than their competitors because once the recession is over they don't have to spend two solid years recruting new people, training them and getting them to integrate as a team with all the other new people they had to hire because they selfishly shitcanned the entire department way back when in order to make some analyst at Lehman Brothers happy.

These same studies also tend to show that the sorts of companies that do the most laying-off are the ones most recklessly managed during the good times: wildly overhiring in order to look bigger and more important, blowing cash on foosball tables and weekly massages for the staff ... you know, all the things that practically every arrogant dotcom was famous for.

In short, if your company is laying off people, it's because the managers screwed up and/or got intentionally fat and lazy during the boom years. So while it's nobody is inherently "owed" a job by any company, the reality is that the laid-off employees often do deserve to keep their jobs far more than the managers that make the decisions to lay them all off, in order to cover said managers' own asses.
posted by aaron at 4:18 PM on February 11, 2002


Management studies routinely show that companies that do NOT lay off workers during tough times suffer less of a downturn

I would assume that this applies to companies that are able to SURVIVE the downturn - a skewed sample and not applicable to this latest Internet boom where many unviable companies fell by the wayside.

aaron: Do you have any references/links for said management studies?

All of this ignores the fact that many dotcoms went into the ground because the inherent idea/business model was unsound. This is not such a bad thing. Its like the Cambrian Explosion in evolutionary theory: A new niche/opportunity was created and a whole host of body types/business models were rapidly crafted. In the end, only a few survived, the rest being only fossils, exotic and extinct.
posted by vacapinta at 4:34 PM on February 11, 2002


"There are no menial jobs - only menial mindsets"

Jesus H. Fibrillating Blowing Chunks Christ. I would prescribe an emergency bullshit enema, but I suspect the entire patient would efflux down the tube.
posted by Opus Dark at 5:08 PM on February 11, 2002


MidasMulligan:
Don't want to be at the whim of companies? Then bloody start one.

Ahh, if only it were that easy. How many people do you know who have a hundred grand waiting to be dumped into some idea which will almost certainly never pay off?

You worked for a company capable of blowing through $30 million in two years and didn't notice? You have no responsibility for, oh, I don't know, actually analyzing the company you work for to see if it is managed well enough to stay in business? It's their fault that you're out of work? Hhhmmm.

What choice do you have? You can quit and be unemployed now, or you can wait, get laid off, and be unemployed later. Either way, there's nowhere else to go. It's not as though there's an unlimited pool of potential employers. And who knows? Maybe your dotcom will be one of the lucky ones.

Signs that the web-company my wife worked for was in trouble showed up long before the end of last year. She could have quit anytime, but what would have been the point? Sure, she could have quit and bled out her savings on a futile job search, ending up broke and unemployed. Instead, she stayed on and used her position to get all the experience she could. The company went under, now she's laid off, and she gets to fund the first six months of her futile job search with unemployment benefits. She'll still probably end up wiping out her savings before it's all over, but this way she's some nine months closer to getting through it.

And yes, she's now looking at other careers. Which is a shame, because she's pretty damned good at what she does.

-Mars
posted by Mars Saxman at 5:10 PM on February 11, 2002


Looking back, I think the worst part of any of those jobs was not the job itself, so much as the lack of respect shown for the person doing the "menial" job, both by the public and by management.

Amen! Every job is a "real" job. The cost of living and wages vary greatly across the US these days, and some areas have many full-time positions which don't pay enough to rent a room, buy groceries, and get medical and dental care. It would sure be nice if the relationship between low-end wages and cost of living would head back towards where it was 20 years ago, when honest, full time employment most likely made you a self-sufficient individual.

Seems to me that if single, unemployed techies could actually support themselves with minimum wage employment, you'd see much better attitudes all around.
posted by sheauga at 5:33 PM on February 11, 2002


" ... "There are no menial jobs - only menial mindsets"

Jesus H. Fibrillating Blowing Chunks Christ. I would prescribe an emergency bullshit enema, but I suspect the entire patient would efflux down the tube...."


Spoken like a true case in point.
posted by MidasMulligan at 5:37 PM on February 11, 2002


Spoken like a true case in point.

Pray clarify, please.
posted by Wulfgar! at 6:23 PM on February 11, 2002


lots of talented people out of work. What did you really expect? So many of the dotcoms where the ideal job for john cusak's character in Say Anything. Remember that? he didn't want to buy anything, process anything, sell anything etc...

Just because talented, passionate people worked for the useless dotcoms doesn't mean the idea was any good...people need to realize that. What is one of the Best sites you have ever seen? Metafilter. Who runs it? One guy working his ass off. A good example that one good idea doesn't need VC and hundreds of people to make work. [though i'm sure matt would dig having a metafilter-paid-for 401k and health insurance.] Why in the fuck would some content portal or other amazing website need 200 programmers?

The internet employment boom should have never happened. It was a scam. If you were making 100K a year working for eCircles or some other lame money-burner, you were a vampire. Be glad it is changed. Follow your dreams. Do something important. Become a schoolteacher or a doctor or something. Move to a city where rent won't kill you--i pay $450 for a nice one bedroom and can still drive to SF or Berkeley to see a band play on a weeknight.
posted by th3ph17 at 6:46 PM on February 11, 2002


My company's been rehiring for a while now, as our business has picked up a lot in the past few months. I thought that the larger pool of potential workers would make finding great people easier, but it doesn't seem that way. Some come nervous, some come arrogant, some desperate, and it's hard to dig through all that and try to discern how well they'll actually perform. A lot of the people whose resumes cross my desk have had five jobs in as many years, and it really makes me wonder- bad luck, bad judgement, inability to stick things out, or perhaps- bad employee. Hiring still feels like sauntering through a minefield.

(Midas- I don't understand where all this hostility is coming from...)
posted by kahboom at 6:49 PM on February 11, 2002


Just my opinion, but - I think the effects of the dot-com bust on techie employment will be a short term thing. Silicon Valley hype notwithstanding, most programmers in the U.S. don't work for over-capitalized start-ups with silly business models. Most of the need for skilled tech workers comes from traditional companies who are now relying on computer tools to aid in whatever their core business is. Some of those companies have been laying people off during the recession, but as noted by ook, they still have to get the work done, so they contract for the work. As we pull out of the recession, they'll be hiring again - and probably more so, because the trend is to rely more on computing tools, not less. Bottom line - we tech workers can be affected by the economy like everyone else, but we've got it a lot better than most people. My girlfriend is in grad school looking to become a professor in experimental social psychology - I'd much rather be in my shoes than hers when it comes to looking for a job.
posted by tdismukes at 7:36 PM on February 11, 2002


Folks, the problem we have here is not necessarily management vs. labor but instead Clue vs. NoClue. It just seems that the NoCluers make up more of management than vice versa. Then when the company perishes as a result of their Cluelessness, other NoCluers rehire them lickety-split.

Anecdotally I can say this in regards to Midas' comment about employees sitting idly by. Where I was working the management was of the mind that we "had no competitors". Now if someone as big and dominating as Andy Grove is smart enough to realize how stupid that mindset is, why couldn't this guy? (I would link to an interview where he made the "no competitors" comment, but that's neither here nor there). We had a strong tech team who created an actual product/service yet the folks in charge would just not listen to us about the realities of the market and how we could best proceed. Their solution to every gyration of the market was to fire half the tech team, then hire a bunch more marketroids at higher salaries who couldn't sell water to a man lost in the Mojave desert.

We worked insane hours, some to the point of exhaustion because of deadlines - so when you say we just weren't trying I have to call "shenanigans" (along with some other things) on that.
posted by owillis at 8:13 PM on February 11, 2002


an interesting perspective from right after the start of the dot-com decline. related to the over-employment/inflated expectation thread, with a speculation on the long-term effects of us folks who broke into the professional world during the dotcom craze:
"An entire generation of business leaders will be corrupted. They will have great skills in designing obtuse ad campaigns, doing barter deals, negotiating with investment banks and venture capitalists, and doing secondary road shows. But this generation will have no skills in marshaling sales forces, hiring executive teams, working out fair business contracts with customers, and building employee morale and culture that is sustainable beyond a two-year period. The Dot Com generation will get squeezed by more skilled baby-boom managers and aggressive Generation Y newcomers. Former Dot Com managers will end up working for their elders and their juniors. "
obviously won't apply to everyone, but there are quite a few things in this piece that are now ringing true (except of course for the part about jay walker building an enduring company... =) ).
posted by mmanning at 9:06 PM on February 11, 2002


I'm surprised that there is not more suit beating going on here. I worked for a company (nameless) that actually bought another company (nameless) for more than $20mil in cash and stick for this other companies userbase and discussion system. Then we paid for an insane ad campaign (national TV, buses, radio everything), then we asked for their user database (6 mo. after purchase). It had less than 10,000 names in it and user logons were becoming more rare. You couldn't sell an ad on the system and since it was partially email based it constantly was getting spoofed into sending people interested in antiques rmails with subjects like "Look at my Balls!" which caused no end to confusion. BTW, $20mil was more than my companies yearly overhead.

The next month: an affiliate of my company decides to use a new java-based dynamic content system to serve their pages. They use next to no dynamic html features of the product and run their front page as a dynamic page. Result, their system needs rebooted many times a day and cannot handle more than 10 hits a second. Cost of the system: $400,000. Interestingly, the day the system went live my group was surprised to find that we were responsible for maintaining it and thus got chewed out about six times a day for it going down. But not for long as everyone at the affiliate soon lost their jobs. But please don't worry about that $400.000 going to waste as my company opted to integrate this *great* tech on our site, which was a complete failure.

How about when my company bought a $18mil share in nameless.com three months before the stock absolutely bombed so that they could share content, but never did?

So it might not always be the suits, but it definitely was once.
posted by n9 at 9:42 PM on February 11, 2002


Hey, n9, my company's story was about the same as yours. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess it was the same company.

I was a freelance writer, so I wasn't counted among the laid-off when I was laid off. And I was probably overemployed, in the sense that I had no experience when I was hired, which came about when I randomly e-mailed the right person on the right week.

Now I'm in computer science grad school.
posted by transona5 at 10:08 PM on February 11, 2002


owillis, I knocked myself out at my last job too. We also had "a strong tech team who created an actual product/service," but layoffs were inevitable when the market went sour. I have nothing but awe for the "suits" I worked for- great human beings with world class talent.

It's not easy to relate to all the profanity and complaints here about "over-entitled, over-paid, bad attitude tech employees." This may have been common in CA or NY, but in places like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, we didn't see much dot-com influence on the prevailing work ethic. The work ethic is one reason I'm so grouchy that latte-slinging jobs aren't a viable alternative to holding out for a professional position.

I agree that this thread has not flamed the "suits" as much as a few of them deserve. (The guys who shut down LTV Steel and moved the Cleveland Browns out of town come to mind.) The great spiritual treasure about having to work at shit jobs is the regular lesson called: "VERBAL ABUSE! Let's not go there."
posted by sheauga at 10:43 PM on February 11, 2002


It's a weird thread when aaron comes out batting for Labor.
posted by dhartung at 11:28 PM on February 11, 2002


So where are the unions in all this? Did labor drop the ball on organizing all the dotcom/tech workers? If people in my company said "We won't touch a keyboard until we first discuss layoffs and what other things we can do to cut costs, and if layoffs are truly necessary, we get advance notice of layoffs, a humane severance package (ie not two weeks damnit), a guarantee that it won't happen again for x amount of time, etc."

We could all be replaced pretty easily by temps, but it would take a good month to get new people up to speed. What we have is a precise, working knowledge of obscured architectures, and people are too spineless to recognize that there's a value to that. We could all be having our corporate masters running scared, or at least respecting us. Instead, at my company, after every round of layoffs, people who still have their jobs are thankful and happy, and hope it doesn't happen to them the next time around.
posted by panopticon at 7:52 AM on February 12, 2002


after every round of layoffs, people who still have their jobs are thankful and happy, and hope it doesn't happen to them the next time around.

Whereas, if labor had been organized and negotiated a larger severance package, the company would have simply kept everyone on until it could no longer afford to pay anyone anything, not even severance, and everyone would have lost their jobs at once, probably without the promised warning. After all, what is the union going to do to help its workers in this situation -- call a strike on a company that doesn't exist anymore?

In the middle of the dot-com bubble, nobody wanted to unionize. Most people were thrilled with their high-paying, easy jobs with their tons of perks. A union offered them no obvious upside (how do you promise to make the perfect job better?) for their monthly dues. By the time the bubble burst, it was of course too late to start.
posted by kindall at 8:43 AM on February 12, 2002


...the company would have simply kept everyone on until it could no longer afford to pay anyone anything

Maybe. But the difference between two weeks severance and 4 weeks severance means a lot more economically to the worker than to the company. And you rarely hear of a company forcing 10-25% paycuts to the top money-making executives while they lay off dozens to hundreds of people.
posted by panopticon at 9:29 AM on February 12, 2002


But the difference between two weeks severance and 4 weeks severance means a lot more economically to the worker than to the company.

If you are a business and have four weeks' worth of cash left, you have two choices:

1) Pay everyone severance and shut down.

2) Keep everyone going until the money runs out just in case things turn around.

If there is even a slight chance that things will, in fact, turn around, you will choose #2. There is no downside to it; if things do turn around, workers will not be the wiser, and if they don't, there'll be no company left to pay the employees off.

And you rarely hear of a company forcing 10-25% paycuts to the top money-making executives while they lay off dozens to hundreds of people.

That's because the executives have employment agreements that prevent that from happening, and big-ass severance packages that make it make even more financial sense to keep them on until the end (using exactly the same logic as above, except think six months' pay instead of four weeks).

The reason executives get that kind of parachute is because there are a lot fewer good executives than there are good Web designers (or whatever). So if you find a good one, you give him anything he wants, up to and including what your competition will give him. Simple supply and demand, basically.
posted by kindall at 10:39 AM on February 12, 2002


Option one is by far the more ethical choice IMO. Given the same logic the _best_ thing to do would be to wait until you cannot pay the employees the money you owe them and let everyone go with no severance and screw them out of their last paycheck to boot.

I have a couple of good friends that had just thing this happen to them. One of them was paid monthly and didn't get a dime for en entire month's work. That's depressing.
posted by n9 at 3:43 PM on February 12, 2002


After another day "in the mine," I feel obliged to say the following:

I am less and less able to distinguish what would have once seemed desirable work from undesirable work. It's a kind of surcrisis, since, in theory, I'm trying to escape one career (law) for another.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:01 PM on February 12, 2002


It's a weird thread when aaron comes out batting for Labor.

Hey, being pro-business doesn't mean being pro-asshole, or believing that stupid jerks should be allowed to be the survivors just because they made it to management, and the workers the losers, when it's the jerks' bad management that brought the company to its knees in the first place. Businesses ARE their employees. Their success, and the success of this country economically, is due to the individual employee. If it ever gets to the point where the individuals simply give up, we're all doomed.

Feh, I'm too fuzzy headed to write this very well; I hope it's clear enough.

Oh, whoever asked, no I don't have any direct cites on hand for the studies I mentioned. But anyone with access to Nexis should be able to track one down; one of those studies just came out a few months ago, and got a pretty decent amount of news coverage at the time. That's where I first read about it.


posted by aaron at 12:45 AM on February 13, 2002


panopticon: So where are the unions in all this? Did labor drop the ball on organizing all the dotcom/tech workers?

They tried, some of them. However, I think part of the problem is that a) as noted, during good times who thinks of upsetting the terrific ride on the bubble; b) tech workers tend to lean libertarian and thus disliked the idea of unions, and c) the general disfavor the idea of "Unions" have fallen into of late, possibly due to their historic "blue-collar" connotation. I think in some people's minds, belonging to a union is like buying life insurance for the first time: an acknowledgment that despite your youthful hopes of being the first person to break the streak, you will in fact die some day. Union membership is admitting that you aren't special, you aren't an elite member of the work force, that you too can lose your job in a moment and throw your life into disarray. Heck, $7/hr Wal-Mart workers with no benefits have been well-trained to resent or be suspicious of anyone trying to form a union, despite the obvious benefit to them to do so.

kindall: That's because the executives have employment agreements that prevent that from happening, and big-ass severance packages

... something the union's members- the employees- would also have if there was one in place. I am under the impression that in some factories, the union effectively forces the company to set up a severance fund during more profitable times for just this contingency- so that severance pay isn't the final pot that the execs are betting with.

kindall: The reason executives get that kind of parachute is because there are a lot fewer good executives than there are good Web designers (or whatever).

And yet if they were good executives, they wouldn't need golden parachutes, eh? Reminds me of the highest paid athletes having bonus clauses for being All-Stars; you'd think being the highest paid would imply All-Star, but apparently not. Besides, I don't know that what you say is actually true. Good web designers are relatively rare; merely competent or trained ones far less so. And you could say the same about management; I've seen some piss poor managers in my day, but I guess once you've got access behind the velvet ropes and that rolodex full of similar individuals, you can all but ensure that you never have to leave the club.
posted by hincandenza at 2:17 AM on February 14, 2002


The New York Times has an article today with a similar observation, regarding how an unusually high proportion of the people unemployed today are professional and technical workers:

The number of professional and technical workers collecting unemployment insurance more than doubled, according to the department's analysis, which looks at average monthly data. So while the number of workers in all occupational categories collecting benefits rose 56 percent, the number of professionals jumped 120 percent, making theirs the second-largest category of unemployed workers (in 2000, that position was held by clerical workers).
posted by mattpfeff at 2:43 PM on February 19, 2002


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