Monday, October 25, 2010
My Experience with Unemployment
On Sunday evening, the CBS show 60 Minutes aired a segment entitled Unemployment Benefits: The 99ers that got me thinking about my own recent stint with unemployment. Official US unemployment now stands at 9%, and when the discouraged and underemployed are counted the real number is around 17%, with an anemic recovery unlikely to reduce unemployment significantly.
My own unemployment began with a phone call, not even a face to face meeting, to let me know I would be RIF'ed in a month unless I found another job in the company. I had worked for this Fortune 15 company for 28 years and was competent enough to rise to a middle management position supervising the work and setting the work priorities for about 85 people.
My first reaction was denial, but that didn't last long. With the month deadline fast approaching, and a wife and three kids depending on me, I set to work trying to find another job inside the company.
My hope was to find a lateral move within the company, but soon found out my salary level was the specific target of this RIF and there were no openings to be found. Talk about depression setting in.... to bust my tail to get to this level only to be punished for my success.
My choices quickly became whether to accept a downgrade to stay employed, or to take the corporate severance package and seek employment elsewhere. Instinct told me to take the "safe" route and find a manager. Two possibilities quickly surfaced-- both dead end jobs that no one else wanted, using outdated technology. Should I take this "safe" route that would leave me in a less marketable position if I were to get laid off in a year in exchange for extending my employment a bit longer?
I sat down with my wife and went over the options with her in detail, looking at both the financial aspects as well as quality of life issues. Her position from the start was to take the severance package, which would amount to over half a year's salary, and take my chances elsewhere. She knew I would be miserable taking a lessor position with limited potential for growth and learning. Another deciding factor is that we had saved and invested a large portion of our salaries to prepare for the worst, and could survive several years if necessary without my income. We figured worse case I could always get a government job since I live in the D.C. metro area and the government is always expanding.
With this decision behind us, I began working with the career counselors provided as part of the severance package to polish up my resume, and learn how to market myself to potential employers. After two weeks of drafts, I came up with my final resume and was ready to beat the bushes for a job.
The first avenue I pursued was working my network of friends. They were all very concerned and sympathetic, and willing to help, but no one they knew was hiring. Next, I hit the typical internet job ad sites, the headhunters, and the government sites. In a three week period of time, I must have applied for a hundred jobs. The silence was deafening. Not even a phone call or an email saying "sorry, we don't want you." It was like wadding up my resume and dropping it down a black hole. Was I at that age, salary level, and skill set where no one would want me?
Finally, I got an interview through a headhunter for a position that perfectly matched my skills. What luck, the two key decision makers used to work for the same company I did and we knew many of the same people. This was too good to be true. I crushed that interview, and things were looking up. A week later I got a call from the headhunter saying the position I interviewed had been withdrawn due to financial problems in the company. I don't know if this is true or not, but I suspect the company found someone else for the position where they didn't have to pay the headhunter fee. Talk about being depressed again.
Next I started hearing back from some of the government jobs I applied for. In the bizare-o world of the government, I got turned down for a number of positions saying I either didn't have enough experience or education to qualify, as if 28 years and Master's degree is not enough for a GS-13 or 14, while those same agencies found me qualified for a GS-15. Go figure.
To keep a long story short, I went on several interviews with the government. I won't describe them in detail, but suffice it to say they were the most clueless and apathetic bunch of people I've ever talked with.
My break came when on a whim, I applied for a job with a company I never heard of. An hour after hitting enter, I was on the phone with their HR department answering the initial screening questions. A day later I did a phone interview with the hiring manager, and was brought in for a face-to-face the next day. The offer came two days later, a month and a half after I left my previous job. I was not going to turn it down in this economy.
My experience was similar to the people in the CBS 60 Minutes segment. But I was lucky. Even in the D.C. area jobs are very hard to get. I stumbled onto the right opportunity at exactly the right time. Not everyone is so fortunate.
I learned a number of things from this experience I won't forget. No job anywhere is secure. No matter how great your past achievements are, companies have no qualms about laying people off and don't consider the long-term consequences of brain-drain on their business. You need to keep your skills up-to-date with what the marketplace wants. You need to plan for the worse case scenario with an emergency fund that will allow to weather an extended period of unemployment. You need to break your emotional attachment to your company and your job. You work for Me, Inc, not that other corporate name, and you should manage your career as if you are an independent contractor whose contract could be terminated at any time without cause.