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By Jack Ganssle

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Published 8/21/2001

How fast things change.

Only a year ago the government predicted a massive shortage of computer people over the next decade. The implication was that we techies were in fat city and could expect big raises as demand exceeded supply. With happy smiles we could bask in our unprecedented job security.

Now an EE Times (August 6, 2001) headline reads "Bell tolls for the EE in latest round of tech layoffs." The August 13 issue claims 26,000 computer industry people were axed in July alone - admittedly, most non-engineers. The telecomm segment alone has cut over 175,000 jobs this year, the "computer" arena (whatever that means) another 101,000.

For the last several years my email inbox has been flooded with desperate engineering managers' requests for embedded people. That has stopped. Completely. Now the engineers correspond, wondering where the jobs are. Asking for resume advice. Panicked about making the mortgage payment. Some even thinking about career changes.

A friend in the financial services industry tells me his company now promotes selling short as an investment strategy - making money as the market slides down, rather than on a big score as in the 90s.

What does it all mean?

After 30 years in electronics this is the fourth downturn I've witnessed. So far, for engineers at least, this one is mild. I remember great floods of Apollo designers quite literally pumping gas in 1970. Many never made it back into engineering. The early 80s saw a slump that was somewhat kinder to us, but that created massive disruption as companies dumped workers and middle managers en masse. By 1990 or so another recession changed the language as companies "rightsized" rather than had layoffs.

This slowdown feels a bit different, though. I think the boom 90s changed people's expectations. Pundits predicted that the new economy was intrinsically recession-proof, a statement that struck me as foolish at the time. Younger workers, those who haven't been through a recession, have never felt more invincible and were financially unprepared for hard times. Then the pink slip arrives. Their BMWs and heavily-leveraged houses don't look like such wise investments anymore.

Economies always move in fits and starts, expanding and contracting in an almost organic way. "Job security" is thus an oxymoron. Life is complex and tenuous. Things change, markets collapse, global transitions become personal all too quickly. Staying put at one company for decades in hopes of a comfortable retirement is often a fool's dream, as is the manic 90s salary-inflating job-hopping.

Even our retirements are in jeopardy as never before. The real-estate inflation that gave so many of our parents unexpected wealth is gone, over, kaput. Social security is ever more elusive as Congress considers increasing the retirement age and monkeying with benefits.

All of this suggests there's but one option we have. Save. Invest. In good times be wary. Bad times will inevitably come. Severance packages are down, government help nearly non-existent. Create and grow a nest egg, even when rampant consumerism beckons.

For even on the calmest days there are storm clouds on the horizon.