Surviving redundancy

It's been a tough year for 27-year-old Stephan Koledin. On June 7 last year, he was laid off from his software development job at The Motley Fool, located near Washington DC.

It's been a tough year for 27-year-old Stephan Koledin. On June 7 last year, he was laid off from his software development job at The Motley Fool, located near Washington DC.

Since then, it's been a roller-coaster ride of shotgun web searches, sure things gone bad, freelance work and unintriguing prospects. He was even rehired and then laid off again.

The result: a new outlook, hard-won wisdom and a new game plan.

Koledin is just one of the more than half a million IT workers who were laid off during the first 10 months of last year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm in Chicago. The number of IT professionals looking for work on Dice.com, the oldest and most heavily used IT job board on the web, has increased 50% over 2000, says Scot Melland, chief executive of Dice in New York.

The regions most heavily affected have been the strong technology centres, including the San Francisco Bay area, Boston, New York and Austin, Texas. The hardest-hit IT areas have been consumer or front-end technologies such as web development.

"The demise of the dot-coms took away a lot of those jobs," Melland says.

That's what happened at Motley Fool, where Koledin was caught in the second of several rounds of layoffs last year. "Certainly, I was a little disappointed, but also kind of relieved," he says. "Things had been going downhill, and it gets depressing working in an empty building with all the empty desks."

Being laid off taught him to be more sceptical about the business side of a company, he says, explaining, "Financials are not always as good as they appear."

Koledin had a reasonable severance package to fall back on, and, on the day of the layoff, a manager passed him a tip on a start-up hardware maker. Koledin contacted the start-up, liked what he heard and began discussions about the work and the salary. "It looked like a done deal," he says. But a month later, without warning, the start-up stopped returning his calls, and that was that.

Having inadvertently wasted a month, Koledin began a blanket search of postings on all the big internet job boards. In the Washington area, Koledin says, "there certainly is work if you're not too fussy. But you end up doing the same projects you did before, but for different companies."

Nor did Koledin find anything interesting enough for him to relocate. By early August, he was doing some independent contracting to pay the rent when he got an invitation from Motley Fool to come back as a full-time software developer. Koledin had no illusions about longevity.

"I saw this as a way to stall, at least through the winter, while looking for something else," he says. But that wasn't to be. He hadn't been on the job a month when another layoff was announced.

This time, there was no shock, he says. A co-worker compared the news to stepping on gum on the sidewalk: "It's just kind of annoying, but no one's too emotionally upset," he explains.

Koledin has decided to move back to his hometown, Pittsburgh. He's been networking with people and groups such as the local technology council and chamber of commerce. He's investigating what kind of work companies are doing, where they're expanding and whether they can use his skills. He's approaching Pittsburgh employers through job postings that may not even be a good fit, just to get some face time with people inside.

Koledin is convinced that his original big-net approach was a mistake. "Just hitting the job-search engines and headhunters isn't really geared toward getting a job you want," he says, adding that targeting specific employers seems to be working better.

For Richard Wren, 57, being laid off was an opportunity to take stock. Wren was an IT manager at Aspect Communications in San Jose, working mostly from his home in Boulder, Colorado, when a company restructuring left him and most of his colleagues out of work last May.

The instant lesson learned, Wren says, was "if you're a tech person and want to continue to be, the key is to be closer to the real work, not just management".

Since Wren had done environmental work years before and had continued to be involved as a volunteer, he decided it was time to try to integrate his professional skills with his avocational passion.

Toward that end, he's expanding his volunteer activities with organisations such as Boulder County Parks and The Nature Conservancy that might have long-term, paid positions requiring both technical and naturalist skills.

"I'm really trying to fuse those together," Wren says. "There seem to be opportunities in the large organisations. They're frequently looking for people -- but not for $US100,000-a-year jobs."

That's okay, because at this point, satisfaction is more important than a huge pay cheque, he says. Meanwhile, he's also attempting to supplement his income by applying for grants to fund environmental fieldwork studies. "Five thousand [dollars] here, $US10,000 there -- it adds up," Wren says.

"The good news is that even with the tech slowdown and layoffs, there is still a lot of demand for tech professionals," says Dice's Melland. The most popular titles on Dice.com's 40,000-job site include software engineer, applications programmer and business analyst. Specialties that remain strong are back-end, money-saving areas like networking, database administration and helpdesk work. Ironically, the geographic regions with the most jobs to offer are those experiencing the most layoffs: technology centres such as Silicon Valley, New York and Boston.

But Melland stresses that 80% to 90% of IT positions are actually found in non-IT companies. "Demand is still strong in the tech departments of major corporations, with a back-end, back-office focus," he says, "Companies are looking for experience and proven skill sets. The best way to portray yourself is based on experience in specific project areas."

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