Jobless in Seattle

Two hundred seventy-three Seattle dot-com workers lost their jobs on Friday, January 19, 2001. Paul Beard, manager of technical services for FizzyLab Corp., a now defunct developer of online search technology for media companies, was one of them. More than four months later, Beard, 39, is still unemployed.

It turns out that statistically January 19 was not an exceptional day in the hemorrhaging of Seattle dot-com jobs. Layoffs are easy to track. The local newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, publishes a daily layoff tracker (see seattlep-i.nwsource.com/venture/layoff.asp) that tabulates almost 11,000 job cuts by Seattle-area tech companies in the past 11 months. "More than 8,000 of those cuts have occurred this year, a monthly rate that far surpasses the aerospace layoffs during Seattle's last down cycle," notes John Cook, technology reporter for the paper.

Not so easy to track are the area's available jobs. These openings often go unadvertised because they are offered by the very companies that are laying off workers. Tapping into this hidden job market can be the difference between fruitful employment and continued frustration for dot-goners.

Cruelest month

April was, by far, the cruelest month for job cuts in the Internet arena since the downturn began, hitting a record 17,554 nationwide, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based outplacement company that tracks Net-related layoffs nationwide. "We have found Seattle and San Francisco to be the most heavily hit areas, followed by Los Angeles and New York," says CG&C President John A. Challenger.

Seattle IT professionals have been especially vulnerable because of their area's heavy concentration of consumer e-commerce companies. Like Silicon Valley denizens, the Seattle tech community got caught up in the "live fast, grow big, cash out" mentality that ruled the Internet economy in the fat pre-meltdown years.

Seattle's experience mirrors the national trend of record-breaking numbers of job cuts in April, with more than 2,096 jobs lost in the Seattle area, according to the Post-Intelligencer. In April alone, Seattle dot-coms such as Kozmo.com Inc. and Aventail Corp. shut down.

And dot-coms aren't the only ones feeling pain. "In the beginning of the downturn, it was primarily the companies that conducted business solely over the Internet that were having the most trouble," Challenger notes. "We now see more and more 'Old Economy-New Economy' hybrids cutting their online staffs."

Driven by networking

Beard was in Atlanta working as a network manager for CNN News Group Inc. when FizzyLab put the full-court recruiting press on him. Beard moved to Seattle in March 2000 and joined the funded dot-com as director of technical operations, supervising a staff of four systems analysts and quickly building his department to a team of 10. FizzyLab's future looked promising. Beard found the heady days of the company's growth exciting.

But that was not to last. The company shut down on Jan. 19. Beard was out on the street and his status as a relative newcomer to Seattle was a problem. He quickly realized that everything -- especially the so-called hidden job market -- is driven by networking. Beard, who has now been unemployed for more than four months, fears he is not as well-connected as others who have been in Seattle longer.

"Networking is what it's all about. If you're not plugged in, you're out," says Janice Brookshier, president of Seattlejobs.org, a consortium of recruiters representing 80 small to midsize companies in Seattle. "Seattle is sometimes like a small town in the way it's networked," she says.

Brookshier says that effective job-hunting in Seattle today is a throwback to the early 1990s, when people marketed themselves. "I know this stuns some people, but if you want a job this year, you may actually have to assert yourself."

At first, Beard didn't assert himself. Like many IT professionals who had been aggressively recruited just a year earlier, he was overconfident. In the first weeks following his layoff, Beard, the father of two young children, blew off a number of opportunities to network and get his resume out. He was a no-show at the pink-slip parties, job fairs, and career expos.

Beard regrets those lost opportunities now. "I felt I didn't need to go to those things because I thought I'd get another job right away," he recalls. Beard has watched more than 3,000 ex-dot-commers join him in Seattle's unemployment lines.

A slow-motion train wreck

Few dot-bomb victims were surprised by their layoffs. Howard Hansen was director of development at Chase-Bobko, a privately held Web development firm, when it ran out of steam and money. The firm went from 60 to zero employees in three weeks.

"The last few weeks were like living through a slow-motion train wreck," Hansen says. Those with supervisory responsibility had it especially hard as they struggled to keep teams together while red flags were raised on increasingly desperate business bets the company was making, he says. "I worked hard to keep my team together, and ultimately probably did them and myself a disservice by sticking around so long."

Hansen feels lucky that his job was targeted in the first round of layoffs on Jan. 31, 2001. "I got my accrued vacation and other benefits," he says. "The later victims weren't so lucky."

Web developer Mark Nettleton was one of those who missed the benefit boat. He survived two more rounds of layoffs at Chase-Bobko. When the company finally closed its doors on Valentine's Day, Nettleton realized he was far worse off than those let go earlier. Not only did Chase-Bobko renege on paying his accrued vacation pay and other benefits, but he had agreed to take an additional two weeks to help the company with the shutdown.

"I kick myself for not bailing out sooner," Nettleton says. "If I had put myself out into the job market, I'd be two weeks ahead of where I am now."

Hidden job market

Still, the job situation in Seattle is not as dire as some people might believe, Seattlejobs.org's Brookshier claims. Most layoffs have occurred among dot-coms and vendors, not at established software and brick-and-mortar companies. "The most senior specialists with leading-edge experience in database, Web design, and e-commerce still get multiple offers," she says. Early in May, Seattlejobs.org listed 400 jobs, approximately 200 of which were IT openings.

The dot-com economy reflects only a small part of Seattle. Anchored by Microsoft Corp., Seattle also has a strong software industry. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently said that Microsoft plans to hire 5,000 to 6,000 people and expects no layoffs.

But plugging in to those jobs is another matter. Even as layoffs in Seattle continue, many area companies -- including those in layoff mode -- continue to recruit highly skilled professionals, but not as openly as in the past. This "hidden" job market is rarely advertised or posted on job boards. Few companies want to publicize the fact that they have a revolving door with many employees on the way out and few job candidates on the way in.

Moreover, companies that have pared down their human resources staffs fear being inundated with thousands of resumes, faxes, e-mails, and phone calls if they tried to fill new jobs through traditional means. As a result, in many cases managers are quietly filling job openings through long-standing and hard-to-penetrate personal networks.

Relative newcomers to Seattle feel like they are sometimes left out in the cold. Beard is drawing unemployment and applying for five to 10 jobs per week. "It's a buyer's market out there," he reports. "Everybody is taking a wait-and-see attitude. The bloom is definitely off the rose for infrastructure plays." In the meantime, Beard is using the opportunity to be with his children and to sharpen his programming skills. "Maybe I'd be better off actually helping build applications instead of merely supporting them," he says.

Beard advises other dot-bombers to go easy on themselves. "If you believe in something, you can't be expected to let go of it. You're not just changing jobs; you're giving up a dream. And that's not easy for anyone," he says.

The only antidote, Beard says, is to make sure you articulate your accomplishments clearly. It's important to remember the basics under adverse and unplanned circumstances and, as others say, work to find work.

John Kador is a business writer in Geneva, Ill. He can be reached at jkador@jkador.com.

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