What can you say to a 52 year old, laid-off, director in telecommunications? I never planned my career dreaming this would ever happen to me. Always a top performer, dozen of headhunters calling every week tempting me to a more lucrative job, life was focused on retirement and enjoying the accumulated vacation you finally get after years of service. Besides adjusting to the $12,000 a month income that was replaced with a $511 unemployment check, there were many more changes in my lifestyle. I wrote this article to share my experiences in business and hopefully provide some advice to younger readers of some of the pitfalls to avoid.
Graduating with degrees in Physics, Mathematics and a Master's in Computers, I joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1974. Like most people the number 1 priority upon graduation was finding a job. Work for someone else and get the security, benefits, challenge, opportunity, etc. Technical people like to work with things and not people. I quickly learned the oxymoron technical management. During my whole career spanning some 30 years the management has been less than spectacular. The higher you go the less you know and the more fear there is that someone else will find out you don't know. It was tough for an overly confident, highly capable person to be managed by incompetence, and it probably cost me a few years lost in obtaining the management fruit myself. But that's another article coming soon called "Technical Management: Evolution of the Species."
Realize that Bell Telephone Labs was not an average employer. It was a lavish country club with thousands of extremely sharp people surrounded by millions of dollars of technology. I was employed in the Telephony Switching Laboratories in Illinois, and we had 3 cafeterias, 5 baseball diamonds, a library, doctors and almost everything else you could have to make work more like a summer vacation. As it turned out I was the first to install and use UNIX for telephony applications and lab control. I moved into management with over 40 staff and a $10 million budget within 5 years. My salary increased almost 15% a year while I was at Bell Labs. I don't expect you to feel sorry for me. It was a good time.
But this article isn't meant to be an autobiography. I want to get to my new reality after unemployment so I am going to have to move a little faster. From Bell Labs, to ITT Telecom, to Ericsson, I finally came to rest at Fujitsu in Dallas. From Supervisor to manager, to senior manager, I achieved the management level of Director. My work encompassed all aspects of technical development. During the years of employment I always had new opportunities come and go, but was more comfortable putting some roots down for the family than constantly job shopping. My shortest employment was ITT in Raleigh, where I managed 68 staff and we were all laid-off on a sunny afternoon in February. No problem. I went out drinking, told the wife the Mercedes has to be sold, and sought my next opportunity. Security comes from the job you can get, not the job you have. Boy does turning 50 change all of that.
In August of 2001, Fujitsu was down sizing to try and remain profitable. I won't go into the details but I was offered a demotion or a severance package. Since I had over 9 years of service, I took the package. I can't reveal the exact details because of some stupid paper they have you sign, but I had life for at least 6 months, and of course I could find work anywhere. Its now April and after applying to every employment board and about 40 jobs a week I have not had one interview. I live in the technical corridor in Dallas and we are heavily telecommunication based. No one is hiring today. Since all my previous employers are telecommunication companies, I am pegged for life as a telecommunication worker. The only reason I can still afford my internet connection is first, my wife owns a mortgage company and she is doing well, and second I cashed out of my 401K savings completely. But the bank account dwindles every month while the clock keeps ticking. My unemployment ended last week, and my health insurance ends at the end of April. I can continue coverage for a mere $700 a month. For the first time in my life I cannot see a solution to surviving when the money runs out.
However, in all of my past 30 years of working for someone else, I never had more than a few weeks of vacation and all of a sudden I had months to myself. I love it! I don't want to go back to the "grind" and earn a few precious hours of time-off every month. I want the freedom that comes from owning your own business. So it was natural that I turn to the internet for my salvation.
I must digress here for a minute to make a point to all of you young, employed people struggling within a large corporate structure. You give your best years and talents to someone else thinking there is loyalty, honesty, trust and 25 other noble traits about your company. You read their mission statement about how they are focused on the staff, their number one resource. Bull shit! The truth is the incompetent executives will throw you out on a moments notice if their job is threatened. The only people still at Fujitsu are the executives that drove the company in the red. They have gone through 6 or 7 layoffs since September and are still being paid like Vice Presidents. All that recruiting, hiring and training is gone as soon as their existence is threatened. Key points to remember from my lesson are:
1). There is no such thing as company loyalty. You are a contract worker being paid to perform some activity and the "company" won't hesitate to end the contract if necessary.
2). If you want to be management in a technical company, you must be non- threatening. The quiet, passive types that have brown stains on their nose mostly succeed in corporations. Management is threatened by intelligence. So don't appear to sharp or you will never go anywhere.
3). Being your own boss and having your own company is about 1,000 times more rewarding than anything a company can offer you. Find something you enjoy, and hire others to do it.
4). Over the hill refers to time after you pass forty. Enjoy the slow time while you are young, because after 40 everything is downhill!
5). If you like the security of a job, then save as much as you can while you work to allow youself an alternative by the time you reach 50. Take out a $million life insurance policy on your children. Put away at least 10% of your salary. Don't invest everything you save into your company, instead diversify.
So what do I do now? I continue to seek work back in telecommunications using internet services. I would like a shot at a job in a different field, such as Human Resources, but feel the odds of achieving that are about the same as fishing without any bait on my hook. I returned to painting and drawing, my two passions. I have set up a web site to seek a publisher for my work but this has not been successful, yet. I have discovered the world of home economics. I do the shopping, the cleaning and basically try and do all the chores for my wife who continues to work at her mortgage company. Believe me housekeeping is a full time job and the pay isn't that great.
I spend most of my free time learning about the internet. I am trying to learn all about marketing and develop a site of my own to hopefully start a home based business. Unfortunately, if my job search hits, I will be right back in the rat race working long days and counting the hours I have saved until my next vacation. Such is life. Without opening up the doors to unlimited spamming, I would appreciate any advice or comments on my article. Please send these to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pat Fargo is a well respected authority on technical management
with over 30 years of experience working for some of the largest
telecommunication companies. During his career Pat has written and published
numerous articles on many aspects of business including interviewing,
promotions, corporate strategy and quality. In his spare time, Pat likes
to paint, draw and build stained glass windows. He also enjoys
travelling with his wife Debra. Pat's website is http://www.patrickfargo.com