And suddenly, it was over.
Although not unexpectedly. The end had been seen for a fair distance. I, and others I suppose, had seen it coming for a while. There were signs, some of little importance taken by themselves, but collectively they pointed to a company engaging itself in change, sometimes bordering on turmoil.
For five years, change was the rallying cry, necessary changes, changes in what we did, how we did it, changes brought by a man who was as much an advocate as a CEO, just the kind of leader the place had needed. During that time, the products were made better, the results improved, profitably returned. In the process, we all became better, professionally and personally. I found myself with more responsibility, engaged in work I’d never done before, work which I firmly believed no one would ever hire me to do. But as a direct result of being here, at this time in the evolutionary history of this Fortune 500 company, the opportunity had presented itself. Under a leader who asked us all to excel, I found myself doing some of the best work of my career. I woke up every day looking forward to what was on my desk. My career had new life.
But after he left to pursue political office, the changes took on a decidedly darker character, less clear, less optimistic, far different from those changes that had taken us so far forward in just a few short years. Suddenly, prominent executives with long tenure filed out with alarming regularity, reasons unexplained save for the euphemistic “to pursue other opportunities”. Organizational changes took place that made no sense. Small and then larger pieces of the company were disbanded, the work sent halfway round the world. This was to be the fate of my workgroup. I had warned Jeni for months that as soon as the outsourcing deal was signed, it would be only a matter of time before I and my coworkers would be terminated. At the eleventh hour, the contract to outsource our group was abandoned, for reasons never made clear. Suddenly, the threat was gone. But it didn’t smell right. I thought then that, if not by outsourcing, the job would probably end in some other way.
I didn’t have to wait long.
Six months later came the announcement that agreement had been reached for the company to be acquired by an east coast company five times larger, with ready cash to spend. For months we waited for transition training that never came. When the sale closed, it was clear the new owners had no use for our work, or for us. They already had similar capabilities, in spades. One by one, we were walked into a conference room where our VP and an HR rep waited. Any of my coworkers expecting a happy ending were quickly disabused of the notion. Of the group, I alone was selected to remain for a undetermined period of time to shut down the operations of our department. I don’t recall it being a request.
With the absence of my coworkers, people I’d spent my days with for years, and the work we had done now transferred to the other coast, much had gone out of the job for me. Facilitating new business deals with suppliers, the act of creating, was over. My role in the new organization was to curtail, to turn off, to close out the infrastructure of our old group. Everything, the business relationships, the contracts, the records and the systems that we used were to be chloroformed. I’d already lost my coworkers; now I was to preside over the death of everything we had done there. No trace would remain.
My new manager was a man whose office and department was 3000 miles away. For what turned out to be six months, as my coworkers filed out, leaving me in a sea of empty cubicles, I did everything needed to close down the operation of our department, everything I was asked, and every action lead closer to the end of my job as well. Surprisingly, in the process, my new boss and I came to know each other. Our working relationship was good and I enjoyed the collaboration, if not the objective. He was supportive, far more than he needed to be, certainly more than his organization would have otherwise allowed. He was, and is, a decent and fair man.
One day, Bill phoned to somewhat apologetically inform me that, most of the work having been satisfactorily completed, he was giving me my 60 day notice. Not unexpected. So on the last day of April, we walked off the floor together and into the elevator. I pushed the button for the lobby and handed him my employee badge. I drove Bill to the airport. We shook hands and he disappeared into the busy terminal. I went home to Jeni.
After ten years and an odd number of days, it was over.
That summer was filled with days that were my own, the first summer since high school without a job, no obligations. Friends congratulated me, told me how great it must be to have a summer vacation. How nice.
But as much as I appreciated their kind thoughts, that wasn’t how it was. It was no vacation. Several months without work, yes. A vacation, no.
It would be correct to say I was ok with the job ending. More like I had gotten used to the idea. The job market had been good through 2006 and 2007. Several people in our group who had seen the writing on the wall had taken the opportunity to take jobs at a variety of companies in the city who were still staffing up. I felt good about my propects.
I had given thought to what I might like to do next, thinking in terms of the specific companies where I might like to work, where I might be able to continue the work I’d done in the last couple years. Even in the spring of 2008, there were openings. Coworkers, former coworkers and friends brought me news of jobs they thought I should know about, positions not yet advertised, jobs in companies where they worked. With the sale of the company announced and the end finally in sight, I applied for several, interviewed with a few. What none of us knew is that we were all headed for a cliff.
The failure of Lehman was my first indicator that something was up. I began each day with Bloomberg.com, MarketWatch.com, CNBC. It didn’t take many days of triple digit drops in the Dow for me to decide to shift the 401k out of drive and into park. At the same time, the jobs I had been discussing disappeared, some of them overnight. Recruiters I had been talking to suddenly didn’t want to know me. The day I took Bill to the airport, there was only one company still talking to me. I wasn’t impressed. All their manufacturing had already been sent to Asia; there’d been layoffs at their US headquarters, measured in hundreds. Their spin was that it was all a grand plan to reposition the place for the 21st century. My interpretation differed. It looked like what I’d just been through. They said they’d call within a week. They never did.
The phone went quiet, followed by weeks of waiting. A seed of doubt took root. Reading the jobs boards reinforced the news reports of more layoffs, of rising unemployment. Over a the summer, I saw only a few that might be a good fit, or that I might position myself to be seen as a good fit. I carefully crafted each resume, applied online, looked for people in my network who might assist from the inside. An opportunity came to me from a classmate in my contract management certificate program. I thanked her profusely and applied in the manner she suggested.
But nothing happened. Nobody called. I followed up on each application. Nothing.
Long before the acquisition was announced, Jeni had taken steps to build a cushion in our savings. We would be ok. But with no response from the few positions offered after 2008, I wondered.
If it ever had felt anything like a vacation, that feeling was rapidly slipping away.
I’d only been unemployed once before. In 1969, when Boeing lost the federal funding for a US-made supersonic transport to complete with the French Concorde, this town went into a regional recession. Boeing laid off thousands, at a time when this was a one-industry town. I was young, worked cheap and was quickly offered a job working sheet metal in a small shop. I never received my first check from the state unemployment security department.
This time, it was different.
This was a situation I had not foreseen. I joined the company ten years earlier thinking it would be my last job. I would retire there. This was a company that had been central to the business community for thirty years before I was born, had grown, thrived, diversified, endured. For decades before my arrival, people had hired in young and retired there. The new CEO had turned things around, had reset the course for the future, the next phase of life for the old corporation. The business metrics had improved every year for four years. It looked like it was set to go on for another 80 years, certainly more time than I would need it to be there, more than enough to get me to retirement.
But looking for work in the recession that started with the Wall Street nose-dive in 2008 was not anything I had anticipated. Far from it.