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A survivor’s tale

Surviving and thriving after not one, but two layoffs. Survivor’s guide hed: A survivor’s tale dek: surviving and thriving after not one, but two layoffs. by Brian O’Connell

Phil Smith III has fallen–or maybe pushed is a better word–into the abyss of joblessness twice in the last year-and-a-half. Twice he has climbed out and lived to tell the tale.

“Losing two jobs in a short period of time is not something I’d recommend for anybody, but I do feel stronger for having gone through the experience,” says Smith, a 40-year-old technical services director at Sine, an Ashburn, Va.-based networking systems consultancy. The company provides network software systems and training for companies that primarily use Linux operating systems platforms.

So it goes in an economy where 1.4 million jobs were lost from January through Oct. 31, 2001, according to employee recruitment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. September 2001 layoffs alone totaled 248,332, up 77 percent from August and more than five times higher than the number recorded in September 2000. Seven of the 10 largest job-cut months recorded since 1993 occurred in 2001, Challenger says. And more than half a million job cuts–an extraordinary total of 594,326–were announced during the third quarter of 2001, up more than 60 percent from second-quarter numbers.

Coincidentally, Smith began the year 2000 in what he considered to be a “safe” job. Three companies and three jobs later he’s with a firm he likes, with no cut in pay, and a lifetime of lessons learned about the fickleness of the high-technology job market, and the value of hobnobbing and networking in finding new work.

Smith’s odyssey began in February 2000, when he was happily ensconced in a job as a technical services specialist at Sterling Software. On Valentine’s Day he walked into work to find out the company had been acquired by software behemoth Computer Associates. “We knew the deal would be closing on June 1, that the buyer would be bringing in its own people, and that we’d better start getting our résumés in shape,” says Smith. “Luckily, I had a friend at a local dot-com [where there was a job opening] that looked interesting.”

Leaving his old firm behind, Smith went to work for his friend’s network monitoring company. Things went well for a few months until word filtered down from the high command that the next round of expected funding had fallen through. At that point, the firm’s key business partnerships began unraveling. “You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to figure out what was coming next,” he adds. Sure enough, Smith’s boss resigned and the friend who recruited him soon left the firm. “The day my boss quit, we all gathered around each other to talk about it,” says Smith. “I remember thinking, ‘This should be an interesting week.'”

By Friday the firm’s entire marketing department got the axe. The following week Smith received a pink slip of his own. It was December 2000, and more than half the firm had been laid off. “Not exactly a Merry Christmas,” says Smith.

Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Smith was scheduled to undergo foot surgery, followed by an extensive rehab program to get him pain-free. “I was laid off the day before the surgery,” he says. “I couldn’t afford the rehab.”

Not one to panic, Smith kept a scheduled lunch date with a friend the very next day. “My friend was working at a local dot-com that had just received funding, and he told me they were hiring. I actually wasn’t too worried about finding work because Computer Associates had contacted me about going to work for them. But this new company intrigued me.”

That company was Exact One, a Chantilly, Va.-based business-software company that provides data access technology and service to corporations, e-marketplaces, and their suppliers. “Think of it as My Simon, but more generalized,” explains Smith. Soon after settling in as technical-services director with a guaranteed bump in salary within 90 days, Smith got that uneasy feeling again.

“You could see some red flags,” he recalls. “The firm wanted to get into the business-to-business market, but they were too late for that. They were also an application service provider, which had become a dirty word. A big problem was that potential clients who had the money didn’t want our services, and the people who did want our services didn’t have the money. Things started to go downhill almost immediately after I got there.”

On May 25, 2001, Smith headed to the conference room for a brainstorming meeting with several of his coworkers. Minutes into the meeting, the company president popped his head into the room and told the group he needed the conference room immediately. Ten minutes later Smith was called back into the room he’d just left. Waiting for him was another pink slip.

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