- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

Alan Carter could see layoffs were coming at the Northern Virginia high-tech company where he worked. In June when office morale was dipping lower and it finally was his turn to be handed a pink slip, he was somewhat relieved.

Three months later, Mr. Carter, the sole breadwinner for his family of four, has been alternately bored, anxious, hopeful and fed up. His summer was spent working on two projects finding a job and reworking the family ledger to make sure his modest severance package stretched as far as it could.

Gone are dinners out and a fancy vacation. In are coupon clipping and networking for a potential job lead.

The scene in Mr. Carter's house is similar to that in many families around the region, as thousands of jobs in the telecommunications industry have been eliminated in the past 18 months.

"The first thing I did was go through my Palm Pilot and write down every single person I knew," says Mr. Carter, a pseudonym for a Northern Virginia man who signed a confidentiality agreement with his employer upon taking his severance package. "I had five or six pages of people to call to network with. What I found was of my friends in the software and telecommunications industry, about 80 percent had been laid off at least once in the last two years. I had one lunch set up with a friend to inquire about working at his company, but he just called to cancel. He was laid off, too."

Mr. Carter is in good company, but it is hard not to take a job loss personally. Losing a job can mean damaged self-esteem, tension in relationships and, in many cases, panic over how the bills will get paid.

"The reality is, you shouldn't take it personally," says Nancy Collamer, a Connecticut career counselor whose husband was laid off last year. "But being unemployed is among the top five stressors in life. Our identity is very much wrapped up in our work. There is a whole emotional side to losing your job. You lose your routine. You lose your support system. It affects everything, and you need to understand that."

After the initial shock wears off, some steps should be taken to get a handle on the situation, Ms. Collamer says. These steps might not lead to a new job any sooner, but they may help families feel like they are in control of the situation.

"Sit down and say, 'What can I do something about?'" she advises.

The first item: Take a hard look at the financial situation. That begins with reviewing the separation package and signing any papers for severance pay and health insurance coverage. Then look at where expenses can be cut.

Mr. Carter had money in the bank and four months of severance pay, but he, his wife and two young children still had to re-evaluate their spending this summer.

"We have not gone out to eat," he says. "We reduced our cell phone plan. It was nice to realize how much money we were spending on junk."

Angela Morris, 43, of Sterling, Va., was laid off twice from high-tech jobs in 2001. Even with a part-time consulting business and income from her husband's job, she says she was in "such financial straits."

"I came up with a worst-case scenario," says Ms. Morris, who six months ago took a new job for 25 percent less pay. "I have a condo that I rent out, and I thought at the very worse, we could move into it. We gave up the cleaning lady. We said we would give ourselves a certain number of months to see how things went. My car was paid off, but I thought about selling it. It is so easy for experts to say we all should have three to six months of expenses set aside, but that is really difficult to do."

Communication is another key point to getting through the situation, Ms. Collamer says. That means talking with family members and with others in a similar situation.

Judy Mueller, director of the Women's Center, a Vienna personal and career counseling center, says even young children should be told about the situation.

"Children at any age can feel anxiety and internalize it," Ms. Mueller says. "It is better for them to know than to not know. There is a way to explain it without creating fear. Parents can explain that this is a part of life, that this is what we are doing, and the way we do things may be different from before. But the bottom line it is OK. It is not forever."

Mr. Carter and his wife were honest with their children, ages 6 and 3.

"We told them, 'Daddy lost his job,'" he says. "What that means to them is we are not going to go to 7-Eleven and even spend $3 on snacks. They understood. They have to. All of us are co-existing here."

Unemployment can take a toll on a marriage if spouses do not communicate well, says Ruth Luban, a California psychologist and author of the book "Are You a Corporate Refugee? A Survival Guide for Downsized, Disillusioned and Displaced Workers."

"Communication is a big issue among spouses," Ms. Luban says. "If the spouse doesn't see the results of a job search fast enough, that can cause resentment. The working spouse may be resentful that they are out there working."

Says Mr. Carter: "The reason it is so stressful is that nothing is solid. There are so many 'what ifs' and variables."

Mr. Carter says he and his wife are approaching the situation as a team. One of their potential scenarios involves his wife, a former engineer who has been a stay-at-home mom for six years, returning to work.

"We'll do what it takes," Mr. Carter says. "That could mean me being Mr. Mom and her working. We could get mad about all this and fight, but it is forcing us to communicate and come up with a plan."

Some laid-off workers have found it helpful to attend support and networking groups that are forming formally (such as at churches and synagogues) and informally (such as at the neighborhood Starbucks or online). Ms. Morris has long been involved with the Washington chapter of the American Marketing Association. She says she found camaraderie, as well as a few job leads, through that group.

"In this kind of economy, just people getting together can be psychological and spiritually beneficial," Ms. Collamer says. "And it is a given that most job seekers are going to be front-line soldiers in this. Chances are that other job seekers will know where the jobs are."

Putting structure back into a day formerly structured by a work schedule also can help, Ms. Luban says. That includes eating well, sleeping well, exercising and, of course, putting the time in to look for a new job.

"I tell people to make looking for a job their job," she says. "But they should not do it for eight hours a day. I say to do it the first half of the day. Then it is critical to get out in nature, in life. I can't tell you how many job leads happen when you are not looking."

Mr. Carter, who has a master's in business administration and was making a salary in the low six figures, says he spends a portion of each day combing classifieds in newspapers and online.

"You have to have a routine for yourself," he says. "Don't lie on the couch, but don't work on job hunting 16 hours a day, either."

With so much competition for jobs, though, he agrees that luck, timing and networking are going to have to figure heavily.

"Its all odds," he says. "I have met people who work at the pool, the gym and church who work at some of the companies I am interested in. If you are shy and unemployed, I say to get over it. If you are only going to put up your resume on online job boards, the odds of you getting a job are so long."

Re-evaluating the career path

Losing a job particularly in a faltering industry forces some people to take a look at where their life is going.

Anne Kenney, 34, a D.C. resident, lost a high-paying marketing job a year ago. She now is a fund-raiser and marketing director for Rebuilding Together with Christmas in April, a nonprofit group that repairs houses for low-income families.

"I could have gotten another corporate job," she says. "But that is not the path I wanted to take. I see the results of my work at this job."

Bruce Lovett, 44, lost his job as a vice president at Landmark Systems, a high-tech company, when the business was sold in the winter. He is now in the process of launching his own venture, C2Health, which provides services to help companies reduce their health care costs.

"On the one hand, I felt we hadn't attained all our goals at Landmark," says Mr. Lovett, who works from his home in Ashburn, Va. "But from another perspective, [starting a new company] is the right thing to do. But it is a very difficult time to get funding. No matter where you are, in a difficult economy it is going to be a struggle. I know people from Landmark who still haven't found jobs. I have been working since 1980, and this is by far the most difficult time."

After losing two jobs within a few months of each other, Ms. Morris weighed some far-flung job possibilities.

"I thought of all kinds of things I can do," she says. "I wondered how much money I would make waitressing or dog walking. I looked into being a FedEx driver. I thought about returning to school to become a teacher."

In the end, Ms. Morris stayed in marketing. She is now the marketing communications manager for TruSecure, a Herndon company that sells security services.

"It was a step backward," she says. "But it was an area I had an interest in. As a high-tech person, I would have named my price a few years ago. Three or four recruiters used to call me a week. That doesn't happen anymore."

Despite all of Mr. Carter's networking and searching, he has had only a handful of interviews. He knows competition is stiff one interviewer told him there were 500 to 1,000 resumes for one job opening.

Still, Mr. Carter has had one job offer. It would mean a return to the federal government at a salary lower than what he was formerly making. But it is a solid job, free from the fluctuations of the high-tech market.

"There is virtually nothing in software right now," he says. "I think anyone who gets laid off is going to have to expect a pay cut. I really liked working for the government previously. I have to think about my whole career."

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