Dan Kugler's professional life has hit several rough patches since he lost his job at Concert Communications Co. in February.
Since then, he has applied to more than 100 jobs, called his roster of former co-workers and attended countless networking events. Yet everything indicates that the pool of jobs for people like him has run bone dry in the telecommunications sector. To make matters worse, the few available jobs are government contracting positions that require security clearance, which he had for 15 years when he worked for AT&T Corp. but gave up when he took the job at Concert.
"It's been a Murphy's Law thing," said Kugler, 49, sounding discouraged. He tried placement agencies and recruiting firms without luck. "I thought I'd have a job by the summer, but here we still are."
The U.S. communications sector lost 109,400 jobs from June 2001 to June 2002, according to a study by the American Electronics Association. In the Washington area, where local telecom firms have cut at least 30,000 jobs in the past two years, thousands of people are in the same boat as Kugler: middle-aged, mid-career and formerly middle management in a sector that has met with colossal collapse.
It has created a population of chronically unemployed white-collar workers, equipped to work in a highly specialized industry that now doesn't need them.
For those who have worked most of their professional lives to build the infrastructure of the information age, it is a jarring blow.
"One of the big differences between these layoffs and others I've seen is that it's not just the companies laying off, it's the industry . . . almost every company," said Jane Trevaskis, a business and career coach who sees a lot of former telecom workers trying to re-enter the job market. "These guys are not just having to get another job, they're having to get a new career."
For nearly five months, James "Rusty" Rentsch cast his net beyond telecommunications and didn't come up with much.
"I was formerly in the commercial aviation industry -- the one industry as challenging as telecom," Rentsch, 39, said with a laugh. He was laid off from E.spire Communications Inc. in Herndon in June. But for every job he went after, hundreds of similarly situated people were after the job, too.
"There's a lot of talent out there, and a lot of very capable people in the market right now, which means a lot of competition for the few jobs out there," said Rentsch, who two weeks ago decided to take a pay cut and work for Deutsche Post Global Mail, a bulk-mail company in Herndon.
Rentsch, who lives in Leesburg, said the hardest part of the job search was managing the emotional highs and lows that came with real or imagined rejection when no one responded to the 200 resumes he sent out. "You go through cycles. It's frustrating at times. You just have to persevere and bring yourself back up."
Washington's employment situation is actually much brighter than in other parts of the country, in large part because a boost in government spending is neutralizing some of the contraction in the tech sector. The unemployment rate in the Washington area was 3.5 percent in September, compared with 7.7 percent in harder-hit Silicon Valley or the national rate of 5.6 percent. But none of that stability appears to be coming from telecom.
Much of what amounted to Washington's upstart telecommunications industry is gone. Companies such as Winstar Communications, Global Metro Networks Inc., Net2000 Communications Inc., Teligent Inc. and PSINet Inc. have folded, been acquired or gone bankrupt. Among large companies, WorldCom Inc. has laid off thousands in the D.C. area in the past year. Makers of equipment for telecom networks also have been hit hard, with local players Corvis Corp., Ciena Corp. and Acterna Corp. laying off people in waves as sales have declined. Meanwhile, much larger rivals Lucent Technologies Inc., Nortel Networks Ltd. and Alcatel have laid off tens of thousands around the world.
The prospects were so bad for Ken Hand, who had spent 41 of his 57 years working in telecommunications, that a few weeks ago he and his wife decided to leave their Washington home and move to New Zealand, where she plans to start an interior-design business.
"Getting laid off back in March caused some deep thinking," which prompted the decision to move, said Hand, who was a director at E.spire and hasn't found another job in the industry. "After a while, after sending out lots of resumes -- a couple of hundred -- and calling contacts in the industry, you begin to realize that you never are going to get a response. That's when the disappointment sets in."
He and his out-of-work colleagues started to ask each other: "Are we even going to get employed again? What is it that makes me unemployable?"
"You begin to lose faith," he said. Then there is the ancillary damage: Sleep becomes difficult, health care costs $770 a month, and unemployment checks begin to run out. "It is very disappointing and depressing."
Ardell Fleeson is seeing more people like Hand and Kugler at the monthly meetings she runs to help laid-off telecommunications workers find new employment opportunities and to invigorate the dejected.
"They just feel lower than a snake's belly," said Fleeson, a board member and director of TelecomHub's "in transition" group, a networking and support organization. The meetings grew from 18 people in August to 39 at the most recent meeting. The typical profile of an attendee is "40 to 55, male and in denial," Fleeson said.
"They're grieving the implosion of the industry that has supported them their entire careers," she said. "I believe this level of management is gone forever in telecom."
Mid-career managers get hit hardest when the going gets tough, career counselors said.
"They have a hell of a time getting jobs because companies don't like paying people less than what they expect, only to have them take off when the market picks up," said Jay Schneider, director of career placement services for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tysons Corner. "It's particularly painful here because there were so many [telecom] companies here."
In a town where everyone asks, "What do you do?," the loss of a job means the loss of status and a social network.
"Losing your job throws you into an identity crisis, and the older you get, the worse it gets," said Michael Bednarski, a psychologist at the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute in Manhattan who has talked to thousands of out-of-work people. "Work is typically 80 percent of everyone's social network, and work really does give us a sense of what we're good at."
Nowadays, people are forming their own social networks of the unemployed.
Susan Ross knows "dozens" of other lawyers who worked in technology, lost their jobs and have not found new employment. She watched the venture capital group at her former law firm, Piper Rudnick LLP, pare itself down in stages to 20 lawyers from 50, as the technology sector imploded. In September, the cuts included her position.
"It's one thing to know on a theoretical level that you could get laid off. Until it actually happens, you don't think about it," said Ross, 41, who refinanced her Dupont Circle home, stopped going to the beautician, now cooks at home and uses frequent-flier miles to trim her expenses. "It takes a lot more energy to look for a job than having a job."
Trouble comes when people run out of that energy three or four months after getting laid off, said William "Sandy" Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University who studies the social psychology of unemployment. That is the typical turning point, he said. "They experience either an intensification and really try to do something daily, or get withdrawal."
Dan Holmes went through that.
Trying to sustain the motivation is "still very much an uphill battle," said Holmes, who estimated he was competing with as many as 300 to 500 people for some jobs, and last week accepted a temporary contractor position at a software firm.
He felt stymied in his job search because many positions in Washington require government security clearance. One of his pet peeves is reading through reams of newspaper employment advertisements that sound great until the end.
"The most frustrating thing is when you read a job description that sounds really good and get to the bottom and see that a security clearance is required," said Holmes, whose Canadian citizenship automatically disqualifies him from obtaining clearance. Security clearance requires the sponsorship of a government agency, or a company that has contracted with that agency, and cannot be obtained by non-U.S. citizens. That happens with 90 percent of the ads he reads, he said.
Holmes worked at Nortel Networks in Canada for 17 years before relocating to Vienna a year and a half ago so his wife, an economist, could work at the International Monetary Fund. Back then, it took him a mere six weeks to get a job as a senior product manager at Teleglobe Inc., a company headquartered in Reston that dissolved when its parent company pulled the plug on its funding in May.
The pending holiday season puts added pressure on job applicants, who fear a slowdown in the hiring process.
Holmes spends at least 10 hours a week looking for full-time work. "I think everyone continues to be nervous," he said.