Laid-off Web workers target traditional firms

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Ben Miller saw the writing on the dotcom wall last November.

A database developer, he'd been lured at midcareer into the dotcom job market in June 1999, "by the exciting promise of potential wealth that would come from stock options." He loved his job with NBCi - loved the energy of the young people he worked with, and the excitement of creating something new.

But by last fall, he says, his work environment was becoming "unstable." It was clear that Internet advertising had not worked out as a revenue base, and the company was having a hard time finding a business model that could work. What's more, his stock options were virtually worthless.

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So Mr. Miller made a decision that put him on the cutting edge of one of the latest developments in the New Economy - he resigned his dotcom job and took up work in a "bricks and mortar" firm, a biotechnology business called Incyte Genomics.

"This seemed stable, with a strong future," he says of his new employer. "It seems like a very strong company with a very clear growth path. The Internet was always full of promise, but it was as much a dream as it was anything else. Much of what people imagined would happen was based on guesses about how people would act and what the role of the Internet would be over time."

Miller is not alone. Although there are no hard statistics, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence among career advisers, recruitment firms, business school graduates, former dotcom employees and bricks-and-mortar employers that the bursting of the dotcom bubble has created some serious rethinking about the value of a good-old-fashioned job in an established firm - where stock options don't necessarily come with a job offer.

Barbara Reinhold, an online career-coach columnist with Monster.com and and the author of "Free to Succeed: Designing the Life You Want in the New Free Agent Economy," sees current changes in the job market as "a very creative time to take the best of both worlds.

"It's about a melding of the new enthusiasm with tried and true old business practices," she says.

Traditional employers are welcoming back mid-level workers who left to explore jobs in the dotcom world. At Arthur Andersen, says regional recruiting director Scott Shane, "increasing numbers" of dotcom refugees are seeking to return to their old bricks-and-mortar jobs.

About 25 percent of the 2,000 hires made at Andersen since last September have been individuals returning from dotcoms. Their experience, he says, is "tremendously" valued. But he also warns that in a softening economy, employees who want to return to old jobs must be able to "connect the dots." "We're taking a hard look at what their experience was. We're saying, 'You left for an opportunity, walk me through what that was, tell me in detail what your role was, explain to me the circumstances of why you left, and what you're looking for now. Tell me what's next in your career progress.' "

But even as the dotcom collapse causes some serious rethinking about jobs and careers, observers say one thing is clear: The culture of the American workplace has been changed by the New Economy.

Many so-called "old economy" companies have adopted their ways - incorporating everything from casual dress and expanding stock-option offers to more workers, to establishing programs that help employees balance life and work goals.

And, say these observers, no matter what kind of job shifts occur as the information-age "revolution" continues, many of the values and job skills that have emerged in recent years will continue to be championed in the workplace.

In contrast to the layoffs of the early 1990s, for example, when many mid-level managers found themselves out of work as companies underwent vigorous management restructuring, today's dotcom-experienced workers are widely seen by potential employers as desirable employees.

"A lot of white-collar workers who lost their jobs in the early 1990s were seen as no longer useful in the workplace," says Richard Donkin, author of a new book, "Blood, Sweat and Tears: The Evolution of Work." "I don't think the workers who are losing their jobs at the moment are in any way stigmatized.

"They are seen as trailblazers," he says. "They are admired among traditional employers as people who will give it a go. There is still a strong future for young, mobile employees who have learned useful computer skills and have an ability to understand the Internet."

The New Economy mind-set is also expected to help employees looking to return to traditional firms.

Brian Bohling, senior vice-president of CDI Corp., a search and recruitment firm, says the mantra of the New Economy worker - which was all about the unit-of-one, self-promotion approach to the workplace - is part of what's needed in finding a new job.

"The language of the New Economy is that you've got to market yourself and your skill set, not the company you worked for," he says. "You're going to market me, me, me, you're going to market your skill sets, you're going to market your results.

"What failed [in many dotcom enterprises]," he says, "was the business model. It wasn't necessarily the individual. The actual work those individuals did is very appealing. They worked in the latest technologies, they worked in teams, they had a winner-take-all mind set. Those are things that traditional companies would love to have as a part of their team."

Although dotcom layoffs have had a sobering effect, creating more caution among both employers and employees, observers say many workers who have felt the spirit of the New Economy - or young people who have come of workforce-age under its influence - aren't likely to give up some of the attitudes that first attracted them to that world.

Miller, for example, loves working at his new job - but he's chosen to work as a contractor, so that he can retain a measure of personal freedom and control over his career. In fact, he still contracts for NBCi - doing much of the work he used to do there as an employee. "I'm carrying some of the New Economy thinking with me," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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