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Coaching workers back from a pink slip

Marketplace Staff Jun 6, 2008

Coaching workers back from a pink slip

Marketplace Staff Jun 6, 2008


Tess Vigeland: This week, the Labor Department reported that the economy shed 49,000 jobs in May, many of them in manufacturing, retailing and construction.

All of those pink slips generate fear, uncertainty and the question “What happens now?”

For some answers, reporter Andrew Phelps turned to one winner in this downturn: the “layoff coach.”

Andrew Phelps: Corporate downsizing can be a scary thing. People imagine a bunch of faceless managers firing people at random, like at Initech, the fictional company in the film “Office Space.”

[From “Office Space”] Bob Slydell: Right, so there’s three more people we can easily lose. And then there’s Tom Smykowski: He’s useless. Gone!

Doug Walker says it doesn’t have to be so inhumane. It’s his mission to meet people at their lowest moment — right after they’ve lost their job — and help them find a new one.

Doug Walker: It’s really quite a rush to see somebody that you’ve seen someone in their darkest time and you’re toasting their new job that they just landed.

Walker is a layoff coach, or as he puts it, an “outplacement consultant,” for DBM Career Services. It’s a 40-year-old company with offices in 45 countries. And business is booming.

Walker: DBM gets busiest when the economy is either tanking and a lot of companies are laying off or when the economy’s growing and there are lots of mergers and acquisitions going on.

After a company lays people off, Walker is brought in to guide the newly unemployed through the pitfalls of a job search: the self-loathing, the lack of motivation. Many people he meets are devastated, even if they saw the writing on the wall.

Walker: I think we all have this bulletproof sort of feeling about ourselves; “That probably won’t happen to me, how could they fire me, look at the difference I make here,” and they convince themselves that they’re indispensible.

That’s exactly how Steve Young of San Diego felt. He was one of Walker’s clients. After 30 years in the Navy, Young worked another seven years for a private contractor. He never thought about his job-hunting skills because he was always employed. And then one day, a contract fell through.

Steve Young: I won’t say devastated, but I was put back because of being let go and it was deflating.

Fast-forward to today. He’s a program manager for the…

Young: …Navy Region Southwest Integrated Solid Waste Program.

That’s right, Young oversees trash collection for the Navy. Talk about job security.

Young: I love it. I love it. I mean, I’m in a new industry. I’m in a new career path that I’ve not been in before.

Young’s job is to keep industrial waste out of the landfill. As a self-described tree-hugger, he’s like a professional environmentalist for the U.S. government. But getting here was a journey:

Young: After awhile, after even a week or two, people get the concern that they’re going to have to settle for something they don’t really want. What they helped me with was to keep my passion strong and go out there and knock on doors, make phone calls, submit resumes. And sure enough, it paid off.

For this job, Young had to compete with civilians, making it even harder to stand out. He learned a skill called the “elevator pitch,” a two-minute presentation that could win over any hiring manager. He learned about little things like sending handwritten thank you notes after an interview. And he learned to always look out for his next job, even if he loves his current one.

Walker: The time to be networking is while you’re working…

Doug Walker again from DBM.

Walker: …because you want your network in place when your job goes out from under you.

Walker himself seems to have plenty of job security, so I asked him: Are you prepared to get laid off tomorrow?

Walker: Oh yeah, absolutely. First, are you trying to give me a message? Did anybody send you here?

I know nothing, I promise!

Walker does says the average American job lasts three years and he hit that milestone five years ago. He says he could be on borrowed time.

In San Diego, I’m Andrew Phelps for Marketplace Money.

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