04/20/2011 01:28 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011

Downward Mobility After a Layoff: How We Landed Lower-Paying Jobs When the Dot-Com Bubble Burst

An April 19th Huffington Post article describes Americans taking lower-paying jobs after layoffs. We saw the same thing in the San Francisco area when the dot-com bubble burst, and the best survival plan was identical: find almost any job that pays more than minimum wage, before your savings are wiped out -- and then reinvent your life.

The dot-com collapse was actually worse than the Great Recession -- if you happened to live in the San Francisco Bay area. Job ads on Craigslist -- where rank desperation met ruthless exploitation -- offered $10/hour for $35/hour positions, and a slap across the face for a bonus. The freeways were eerily empty, the traffic jams of the dot-com gone in a few months.

The high-tech kids solved their problem by giving up their $90,000 year lifestyle and moving back to Iowa. We who had been hostages to fortune -- family, house, a business -- learned to take what we could get. But it took us too long to learn how far we needed to readjust our expectations. Job rejection after job rejection, we finally figured out the formula: rewrite your resume (your work life, your identity, your professional pride) to a lower standard. Then when employers interview you, they'll realize they can pick up a skilled worker at a semi-skilled price.

It's hard to gut a resume that took a long time to build, and it takes 1-2 years to do it on your own, reluctant step by step. So here is the formula in one pass:

We reinvented ourselves for whatever jobs were available. Women with Masters degrees dropped the M.A. from their resume and applied for receptionist's jobs. Marketing directors called themselves marketing managers. Department managers called themselves "team leaders." Many of us completely revised our resumes to eliminate the college education, and downgraded the job descriptions in our work history to match, whether stepping down the white-collar ladder or shifting further down to gray-collar. (Those who went back to former skills and worked as bartenders or carpenters or auto mechanics wrote a new "skills-oriented" resume from scratch - to the extent that it mattered, since trade jobs are often decided in a five-minute interview).

Today there is a parallel trend of companies laying off people with Masters degrees, and replacing them with entry-level people who only have a B.A. or B.S. so they can pay them less -- so dropping a degree can make even more sense in this recession.

The nut is that by downgrading your education and work history, you may be able to land a job instead of spinning your wheels trying to replace your last job at the same salary. There are two flavors: a) shifting back to a career you thought you'd put behind you, and b) downgrading yourself to land any job, whether in your current field or an unrelated niche.

"B" is harder. Going back to pounding nails or taking phone calls is something you deal with, as in "OK, another year pounding nails. Done that before, I can handle it." It takes a serious mental shift to re-invent your whole career downwards, and then play dumb while you have the job. So this article covers "B."

Downgrading Your Education
For most readers, step one in Plan B is deleting your highest degree from your resume. It's as simple as that, because HR checks to see if you've lied in claiming a college degree, but they never seem to check whether you have a degree you haven't mentioned.

Downgrading Your Job History
Then the work begins. How did someone titled "Senior xxxxxxx" get there without an M.A., or at least a Bachelor's degree? So you downgrade the titles throughout your résumé to maintain consistency.

This "title downgrading" is fairly safe in the white-collar world, because employers rarely check references anymore, that being because previous employers are too scared to give references. And what's in a job title anyway? Chain coffee shops call practically everyone a "manager" so they can slip around paying overtime.

White-Collar Jobs
  • Director > Manager
  • Department Manager > Manager
  • Lower-level Manager > Team Leader
  • Manager > Specialist
  • Specialist > Assistant

Gray-Collar Jobs have their own niche-specific terms like "IT" (which can be downgraded to "Tech Support") but you can also change general terms like Senior > Specialist.

Sanitizing Your Online Profile(s)
It's all over the news that HR departments are outing job applicants by checking their Facebook pages. There's also Linkedin, Twitter, and googling at large. From the news stories, HR doesn't look very tech-savvy - if you clean up the Facebook account, rewrite the Linkedin page, and if need be delete the Twitter account, the HR department will probably be wandering lost.

This may sound naive to people experienced in searching the Web, but over the years I've been astonished at what HR doesn't check. If you cover the points above, 99% of HR searches will miss the rest. The continual "gotcha" stories are almost always about a 20-something leaving beer-party pics on their Facebook page or someone tweeting how their boss or job sucks.

Dealing With Reference Checks
What reference checks? Corporations are so rigid that employees won't even give positive references anymore, on the advice of their lawyers. (What if he/she goes postal on the new job? They might sue us!)

Working the other side, hiring people, I haven't gotten a straight answer from any company of size since 1995, not even "Sure, I'd hire them again." References seem to be a distant past. If it's the kind of job where they can make a decision after five minutes of questions, references are irrelevant. If HR is in control of their company, the hiring manager doesn't even make the call.

Remember To Dumb Down For the Interview Too
To ace the hiring interview, you need to have your new profile memorized and internalized from A-Z. You need to live it.

Since you've downgraded, you don't want to ace every question. If they ask a question that is leagues beyond the skill level you're claiming, the right response is a faint look of panic (followed by "doing your best to answer," of course). It may help to hesitate a quarter-second before answering all the questions. Not a second, not two seconds -- a quarter-second is all it takes to convey uncertainty.

Why Dumbing Down Your Resume Works
At first pass logic says there's no point in dumbing down, because then you'll just shift to competing with a different group of laid-off job-seekers.

But first, as mentioned, companies are filling jobs with less experienced people. Jobs in the U.S. are increasingly being held by rookies, all the way to critical jobs like airline pilot. Where this trend goes is worrisome, but that's not our immediate concern, since we are concerned with finding a job. In a world of amateurs, your 20 years of experience could kill the job offer, but the same know-how repackaged as five years of experience could land you the job (at a lower salary, of course).

Second, as you move down the salary scale, the jobs usually become more essential to the operation of an organization. I've worked in white-collar pseudo-skilled divisions where as many as of 90% of the employees were completely unproductive, or more often counter-productively interfering with the worker bees. I've never seen that in a manufacturing plant or warehouse operation. Obviously some employees work less than others, but sweat them until they go postal, and a company probably still can't lay off more than 30% and stay in business.

Meanwhile these organizations still need gray-collar workers -- people with reading, writing, and arithmetic. People who can manage a warehouse or drive around town writing up job orders and assigning them are still an essential part of the American economy.

Blessing or Curse ... You May Have to Work
While many politically nimble chair-warmers hung onto their jobs over the last two years of layoffs, there is not much hiring going on for new chair-warmers. I've heard of people who can sit in a chair for two hours doing nothing without going insane. Power to them ... but on a gray-collar job they may be working.

On the other hand people who go insane in meetings and doing useless work may be a lot happier making things happen; there's a certain dignity to working.

Dealing With Embarrassment
Regardless, how do you handle the embarrassment of downgrading? Or taking the extreme case: whether you have plummeted from finish carpenter or executive all the way to pizza delivery, how do you handle the embarrassment of delivering a pizza to a former co-worker's house?

I think it's a non-issue by now. You can just tell them you enjoy the fresh air and are feeling a lot fitter, which will probably both be true. In the end, though, you "find out who your friends are" -- and often learn that your real friends are worth more than keeping up with the Joneses.

My Own Learning Curve
When the dot-com bubble burst, I blew it badly on my first try at a no-degree job -- manager of a fast food joint. The initial interview was fine, much more down-to-earth than a hightech company. The four-day training session was completed in two days, possibly because I was a natural when it came to wrapping burgers. I thought I was a shoe-in. I had some ethical doubts, but decided I'd meet that head-on with the truth: "I sell trans fat." As I learned after the job went to someone else, my degree had killed my chances. It wasn't much of a job, but $700/week with immediate full health insurance beats unemployment checks. After dumping the college degree, I soon landed a job managing a shipping operation. (The assistant manager's degree -- which he had left off his resume -- was in economics.)

The Difference Between the Dot-Com and the Great Recession
As allowed, the kids could go home to Iowa. And for the rest of us, the jobs returned by 2004. But what we call the Great Recession, other countries call the Global Financial Crisis. So moving to North Dakota or even Norway may not be an answer. And some particular jobs may not return at all.

The dot-com taught us a partial solution to that, too: reinvent yourself in more than one way. If you're looking at nursing as reliable, then try to get certified as a sonogram or CT technician too. If computer IT looks secure, then learn content management systems and accounting software too. This is a formula that has kept many dot-com survivors employed at decent wages even through the beginning of the Great Recession, and often even allowed them to jump sideways into better jobs.

by Nicholas Carroll