“Only after disaster can we be resurrected.” - Tyler Durden, Fight Club
It’s an old proverb that all good things come to an end. Some things, like the Firefly TV series or a drive-thru marriage in Vegas, die before they even really get started. Others, like my tech rant column here on TechRepublic, are struck down in their prime. It’s more than a sign of the times. It’s the inevitable reality of all things.
There’s always a beginning, middle, and end. The real trick is knowing where you are in the process. Being laid off or fired is a young person’s job. If you’re over 40 or 50, becoming unemployed in the tech industry can seem like the beginning of a very painful end of a lifetime career and an uncertain future. Truly, nothing is safe.
Chances are that you live in denial. Your company is showing profits. There will always be a need for IT managers and systems professionals. You do good work. It will be rewarded. But the unfortunate truth is that all things are temporal and subject to forces beyond your control. You must prepare for the eventual end. Only then can you be ready to survive and begin again.
Your future depends on three important strategies: Awareness, preparedness, and escape.
The first and most important lesson is to know history. Those who do not learn from it are doomed to the unemployment lines. From the past dot-com collapse to the current cutting edge of rising bubbles, individual careers in the IT and tech industry are particularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate. From corporate collapses to down-sizing and outsourcing, your job is not safe. Until you know that, you’re merely killing time before the inevitable resume-updating and desperate freelance postings on craigslist.
Whatever the perceived permanence of your company, what about your own personal stability? Might your position one day be outsourced, merged with another department, or worse yet, be endangered by individual differences with management? What if your boss suddenly takes a special dislike to you?
What are the warning signs that your job may be in peril? Consider the following:
- Your company exists in the real world
- Your company has suffered financial problems or failed to expand as anticipated
- Other departments have been or are in the process of being downsized, merged, or eliminated
- Your boss doesn’t seem to like you. This may range from subtle signs such as avoidance of eye contact to the more obvious ones like being moved to a basement desk or your red Swingline stapler being taken by your manager.
- You receive an unexpectedly bad performance review
- You find yourself “cross-training” someone in your particular duties or assigned a new “assistant” tasked with learning your job. Alternately, you may be asked to start a new comprehensive “documenting” process for everything you do.
- Colleagues start avoiding you or you’re no longer included in meetings or certain information loops
- Your pay has remained the same or anticipated raises have not been forthcoming
- Management begins to show special interest in your schedule, vacation/sick days, etc.
- The sky is blue
If two or more of these apply to you, it’s time to start the next step. Of course, if you have attempted a witty rationalization that the sky is not blue but merely a prismatic reflection of scattered light, then don’t worry. Cheerful little unicorns will magically appear with a better job offer long before your unemployment runs out.
Once you accept the fact that no job is truly, absolutely safe, then you must prepare to survive. To do otherwise is to blithely blunder into a zombie apocalypse armed only with a BB gun and no BBs.
- Start a disaster savings fund. This can be difficult if you’re in debt or living paycheck to paycheck, but it is essential that you save enough money for 8 - 14 months of housing, utilities, basic bills, and survival. When (not if) you find yourself on the job market, it may be that long before your next paycheck.
- Start networking NOW like your life depends on it. Establish contacts with other companies and individuals. Your absolute best chance for getting another job will be word-of-mouth tips from your contacts. Nurture them. Cherish them. Treat them like family.
- Explore alternate income sources, such as freelance consulting, starting a side business, etc. At the very least, this will help defer the loss of self-esteem and professional image during your “unemployment” period.
- Expand your portfolio. Approach and exploit every new project as a new gem to add to your credentials. Prepare an online portfolio, polish your resume, and have some individual presentation materials such as personal business cards made.
- Explore your current health insurance and how it will be affected by your unemployment. It’s a known universal law that you’ll need a root canal within 24.6 days after your benefits run out.
The worst has happened. You are no longer gainfully employed. The end has appeared like a rabid pit bull on crack, leaping unexpectedly out of your refrigerator in the middle of the night. All thought of a late night snack of yummy pizza rolls is gone. The question now is how do you escape those slavering jaws of death?
Of course, if you’d actually prepared for this inevitable but wholly unforeseen scenario, you’ve already installed a Plexiglas window in the fridge door and saw the drugged-out dog waiting there. It may take time and effort to safely remove the animal and get back to enjoying your pizza rolls, but you’re in the best possible position to do it.
But what if you haven’t? The crazed canine hits you full force and has you by the throat. What are your escape strategies?
- File for unemployment
- Search for a job
- Hope your preparations were enough to survive long enough to recover
Metaphoric hyperbole aside, in reality, there is very little you can do. Most people refuse to consider the possibility of finding their career suddenly derailed by unemployment, let alone plan for it. Others may be completely blindsided by unforeseeable events outside their control. More than one successful company has imploded at the zenith of their success. Some have self-destructed just before highly anticipated IPOs, as stockholders and board members grab for larger shares of a pie bigger than anyone expected. Others have simply fallen apart due to unexpected outside market forces or new government regulations.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter why. All that’s left are the ex-employees and their families scrambling to pick up the shattered pieces of their hopes, dreams, and lives. The bills mount, debt accumulates, and medical benefits evaporate when needed the most. Careers are lost and marriages fall apart.
There is no an easy way to escape this tragedy. Many who are suddenly unemployed find themselves doing the things they should have already done in preparedness.
The bottom line
How prepared are you for the future? How secure is your job? Businesses come and go. That is the lesson history has taught us. From the buggy-whip manufacturers in 1910 who found themselves obsolesced by the advent of the motor car to the dot-com bubble burst just a few years ago. The IT industry is no different. Even a stable economy doesn’t equate job security. Outsourcing and downsizing need not be done due to corporate hardship, but in the name of greater profit. Even in the best of all possible work environments, politics of personality or personal differences can result in the unexpected end of a career position. If that were to happen to you, could you survive until finding another an equal or better position elsewhere?
The IT industry has blossomed into an ever-more pivotal part of a successful company. But this growth has also been accompanied by the same sense of false security once enjoyed by life-time assembly line workers and auto manufacturers. The technology industry is ever changing. To assume a life-long position with one employer has become a fading American dream. It’s time for IT professionals to take a cold, hard look at their own industry. Some believe the current bubble is about to collapse again. Will you be ready if it does?