Getting caught in a mass layoff

Suzanne Graham, a former IBM employee, at her computer, looking for a job.

Tess Vigeland: OK, I'm just gonna tell you now, the first part of today's show is, quite frankly, depressing. But as we present the problems, hopefully, we'll bring you a few ideas for how to deal with them along the way.

This week's sunny jobs news is that Bank of America is handing out some 30,000 pink slips. Thirty thousand. From the same company. That means lots of folks in the same industry out of work at the same time. We wondered what happens when you're caught up in a layoff tsunami. Is it even harder to find a new job? Possibly easier?

We asked Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer to get some answers.


Nancy Marshall Genzer: The waves of layoffs that started during the recession are still crashing on the very rocky shores of our economy. On top of the Bank of America job cuts, Merck will shed up to 13,000 workers over the next few years. IBM has cut hundreds of jobs just this year.

Suzanne Graham was unfortunate enough to catch that wave last March.

Suzanne Graham: I was at IBM for 12 and a half years.

Graham was a project manager at IBM's sprawling complex in North Carolina's Research Triangle, overseeing programmers and designers. She worked 12 to 16-hour days. Now she spends her days at home looking for work, shuffling through piles of contacts and job listings.

Graham: So who can I call?

It's a drastic change. Graham says, in some ways, it's harder to be laid off in a big wave. She's competing for a new job against hundreds of former colleagues. She ran into one at a recent retraining seminar. They're friends and not competitive. But...

Graham: I have felt that way with others, though. Because I see, "Oh, OK, we're competing for the same job."

Graham says lots of tech workers have lost their jobs in the Research Triangle, making the job hunt even more intense.

Kevin Hallock is a labor economist at Cornell University. He says mass layoffs are much worse if they're concentrated in one geographic area.

Kevin Hallock: If you are part of a large group in a small area that could be a real, real problem. Because if a massive employer, maybe the principal employer in a location lays off a lots of workers at the same time, where are they all going to go?

There is a flip side: At least you're not alone when you lose your job in a big wave. There can be strength in numbers. Wayne Cascio teaches management at the University of Colorado at Denver. He says companies interviewing people laid off as part of a wave know you weren't singled out and fired.

Wayne Cascio: Because people recognize that, in many cases, it had nothing to do with your performance. It may have had to do with a company deciding to eliminate a department.

Or send jobs overseas. Cascio says people should emphasize in interviews that they were part of a large group of layoffs. Suzanne Graham, the former IBM worker, certainly plans to do that. She's also following other advice from experts like Cascio, who say you should be willing to move -- or even change careers. Graham says she'd enjoy any job that involved teamwork, problem solving and analysis.

Graham: It doesn't matter to me whether it's in the information field, if it's in medicine, teaching. I guess I really need to broaden my search and try a lot of other avenues.

Graham says some of the people laid off with her are helping her do that. They get together for lunch every month or two. They all have different specialties, so aren't after the same jobs. Graham says it's not a pity party, more of a built-in support group.

Graham: You know, we really help each other out. I run across a lot of things and think about other people who I think would be the perfect candidate for it. So, we're acting sort of like a family.

Graham says the key to surviving a layoff wave is finding tidal pools of people you feel comfortable with, who can help you get back on your feet, on solid ground.

I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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