CHILL FACTOR: Nontechnical workers at dot-coms struggle to find new jobs
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Jennifer Walker isn’t the typical dot-com casualty. The former marketing coordinator possesses no high-tech skills, isn’t consumed by the Internet and is the family breadwinner supporting a husband and 4-year-old son.
Walker was a rank-and-file worker in a dot-com world ruled by programmers and software engineers. And now that the dot-com frenzy has fizzled, she and other nontechnical workers – from secretaries to sales people – are finding themselves in even more difficult spots.
Nontechnical workers once thrived in this market, making above-average wages and even shunning employers who didn’t pay the dot-com premium.
Now, many are finding that those giddy days are gone. More than 250 dot-coms have shut down since January 2000, 70 percent of them in the last few months, according to Webmergers.com, which tracks and values Web companies.
The downturn has led to some 66,000 dot-com layoffs nationwide since December 1999, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago job-placement consulting firm.
No one has tracked how many of these pink slips have gone to nontechnical workers, but people like Walker, who earned $38,000 a year at ThinkLink, a San Franciso telecommunications startup, are particularly vulnerable.
”I just bought a car,” said Walker, 26. ”My bills need to be paid, and I need to have child care.”
ThinkLink folded in February, leaving her with a small severance package, worthless stock options and $200 a week in unemployment benefits. Her husband, Michael, makes $24,000 a year as an apprentice plumber, and the family has relied on her job for health insurance.
”There are so many marketing people out there and administrative people out there definitely taking salary cuts,” said recruiter Christy Zeri, who started her own business after getting laid off in January from Bravo Marketing, an agency that operates as a high-tech vendor.
”There’s a definite need for engineers and (information technology) professionals,” but nontechnical jobs are ”just really few and far between,” she said.
At one time, Zeri said, some administrative assistants were demanding salaries up to $60,000. Now, she said, they’re lucky to get half that amount.
”They job-hopped and started making more money and outpriced themselves in the market,” she said. ”People on the East Coast completely thought we were living in a dream world out here.”
But for some rank-and-file workers, it was never about getting rich or climbing a career ladder. It was simply about eating, paying the rent and otherwise surviving in one of the country’s priciest cities.
Shannon Light, 22, moved here from Winston-Salem, N.C., last August hoping to save enough money for school. She got a job making $30,000 as a receptionist at a dot-com she declined to identify.
Although she scraped bottom each month just to pay her bills, life became a real nightmare in January.
”They called us down for a meeting and told us the dream was over,” Light said. ”They laid everyone off. One hundred people. The company is gone.”
But the layoff was just the beginning. In addition to learning her insurance benefits had been cut, Light and her co-workers were told their last paycheck wasn’t coming.
”They said we are not getting paid for the past three weeks,” she said. ”We got no severance pay.”
She was out of work for three weeks – on top of the three weeks she didn’t get paid – before getting another job as a receptionist at a marketing company. In the meantime, she paid her bills and rent with her credit card.
”When you live paycheck to paycheck, that’s what you do,” Light said.
One upside for nontechnical workers: They are not confined to the dot-com arena, and their newly acquired skills are transferable.
Naomi Funahashi, 22, jumped from a $35,000 dot-com receptionist job at North Systems to a comparable position as an executive assistant/office manager at a business magazine in San Francisco. Still, the transition wasn’t easy.
”Once I got canned, I had to go to my parents and ask them for money,” Funahashi said. ”Rent in the city is not cheap.”
Raul Keally, 29, is trying to avoid the layoff trap. His bosses at AdTraffickers told him in January that the company was running out of money. He began searching for another advertising job, but gone are the days of posting resumes online and having an answering machine full of inquiries after the first hour.
Keally, who makes about $40,000 as an account manager uploading ads on Web sites, has applied for about 10 jobs, none of them at dot-coms. He’s heard back from two.
”There’s a lot of competition and a lot of people in my same spot,” he said. ”When one job opens up you kind of get lost in the shuffle, it seems.”
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