Got your pink slip? Go party!

When Sharon Luciw was laid off last year from her high-level IT job, she figured she'd have no trouble finding new work, despite the tighter job market.

After all, Luciw had been director of IT at the Mountain View, Calif., office of InfoSpace Inc. and had more than 15 years of experience in systems administration, customer support and operations. And with six years of experience as a manager, Luciw felt she would be a candidate in high demand.

But she quickly realized last summer that interviews were slower in coming than she had anticipated. The employment market was worse than she had realized, and getting another job would likely take longer than she had originally presumed.

In addition to using traditional methods to find a new job-newspapers, online job postings, peer contacts-Luciw decided that attending a pink slip party organized by the Silicon Valley chapter of the Commonwealth Club of California seemed like a worthwhile bet.

"I realized that I was a senior IT manager and the party would probably not produce any direct leads at my level," says Luciw. "But this event offered coaching and had some panelists in industries I had thought about exploring."

Chaired by Marty Nemko, a veteran career counselor in Oakland, Calif., the Commonwealth Club Pink Slip Party in Palo Alto, Calif., was a gathering place for some 500 IT workers in search of new employment opportunities, hopefully within the Silicon Valley high-tech Mecca they had just exited.

Unlike Luciw, many pink slip partygoers say they show up hoping to find specific leads to new jobs. Luciw took advantage of the event to feel out the job climate-what employers were looking for, what technology and business skills were in high demand and where employment might be most secure. The input helped her eventually land a new post at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., in October.

Realistic Expectations

The event Luciw attended provides a perfect example of why job seekers shouldn't expect that attending a pink slip party will lead to an immediate invitation to a new job. Only one contract agency, several authors and no employers attended the Commonwealth Club's gathering, in sharp contrast to typical employer-supported job fairs.

The event's agenda included realistic advice and practice sessions regarding each job seeker's campaign to find new work. There was also input regarding IT jobs in non-high-tech industries from panelists John Epperheimer, president of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Workpath Group and a San Jose Mercury News columnist; Betsy Williams, chief operating officer at Stanford Hospitals & Clinics in Stanford, Calif.; and John Shannon, manager of human resources and employer services for the San Jose Unified School District.

"I came hoping to find companies where I could interview," said one disappointed out-of-work professional, a former manager at a dot-com firm. But he said he still benefited from the evening because he learned how to focus his verbal presentation on a few specific skills and areas of expertise instead of meandering through his entire resume if asked to discuss his experience, qualifications and current job search objective.

Indeed, events such as pink slip parties serve a purpose that's just as important as providing job leads: They can help the recently unemployed brush up on their job search skills and plan more effective strategies.

"People need to understand that job hunting requires consistency," Nemko explains. "This means working on 50 leads, replying to 50 ads, developing 50 personal contacts-and keeping this all going until you find new work."

Nemko says many people tend to burn out when they begin their job hunt on fast-forward and don't realize that their search efforts might require weeks or perhaps months of daily drudging. According to Nemko, a job search requires three hours a day if you're working and six hours a day if you're unemployed.

"Most people fool themselves," says Nemko. "They think they are working at finding new work, when they are really not spending the time."

Recognizing Alternatives

Too many IT professionals also give up if they don't find positions exactly like the ones they've held before. But events such as pink slip parties can introduce job candidates to opportunities they may not have considered.

In Silicon Valley, for example, when most people think of technology jobs, they think of high-tech companies. Many attendees at the Commonwealth Club party were surprised at the wealth of opportunities in industries that they hadn't thought to explore before.

Recruiters at the San Jose Unified School District, for example, have taken advantage of the weak technology market to lure out-of-work IT professionals into the school district for both teaching and IT openings.

"We have apartment rental assistance and also offer teachers a $40,000 interest-free loan to help first-time buyers purchase a house," said Shannon, who also noted the ubiquitous use of Internet technology throughout the district for both teaching and administrative tasks.

But not all IT workers are flexible about the industry or region in which they're willing to work.

"I don't want to move," said a Unix systems administrator upon hearing about an opening in Monterey, Calif., that would have required him to relocate from Palo Alto.

And one out-of-work Web site developer who was clearly hoping for a return to the good old days said he was nervous about his short-term prospects.

"I came here from Philadelphia and had a wonderful time working with a consulting company that helped clients design their e-commerce Web sites. I don't want to leave," he moaned, but he acknowledged that he might not have a choice.

The employment market will remain really tight in 2002, so IT job seekers need to explore new avenues to job leads and advice. Events such as pink slip parties may not lead to an immediate interview, but if you need help targeting your resume, want to find opportunities outside of technology companies or are having trouble presenting yourself, these events can be a very good use of your time.

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