The View From the Bottom

What's it like surviving the telecom bust? Numbers alone don't tell the story.

At 43, with 23 years in the information-technologies sector, he began the thankless search for a job in a jobless market. Because he drew a six-figure salary, he was overqualified for anything entry level. Because he worked as a "high-end consultant," he was unqualified to be a hands-on systems engineer. Each day he would hit the Internet job boards and come away frustrated. Certainly there were executive networking groups holding lunch meetings, but he chose to work his own connections, which proved fruitless since many of his past business associates were also unemployed.

"Good friends of mine have been out of work for more than a year," he says. "A couple are selling cars, another is flipping burgers, another is doing software consulting, which basically means he is sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring."

This was the first time since high school that he had been unemployed, and it was causing him to question his own abilities. "I had always taken my career for granted. If you get the rewards long enough, you come to expect them as your due."

After three successive layoffs, telecom engineer Ted Woods hit bottom, moving into The Samaritan Inn, the only homeless shelter in Collin County.
Mark Graham
After three successive layoffs, telecom engineer Ted Woods hit bottom, moving into The Samaritan Inn, the only homeless shelter in Collin County.
A "for lease" sign outside telecommunications giant Nortel Networks serves as a nagging reminder of hard times in Richardson's Telecom Corridor.
Mark Graham
A "for lease" sign outside telecommunications giant Nortel Networks serves as a nagging reminder of hard times in Richardson's Telecom Corridor.

Overwhelming debt is a great equalizer. "Like everyone else, we were already spending right up to our means," he says. He burned through what little savings he had. His stock options at Nortel were worthless. He had $60,000 worth of unsecured debt and $30,000 worth of new car loans, none of which he could afford to service. His three cars went back to the bank, and if not for two vehicles he borrowed from his father-in-law, he would have no transportation.

He calls his decision to file for bankruptcy "a no-brainer." It was the only chance he had to save his house from foreclosure. Not paying his obligations was something he wasn't proud of. It was also something that was becoming more prevalent in Collin County, where many of the more affluent telecom workers live.

The Collin County Clerk's Office anticipates a record number of foreclosures this year--a 57 percent increase over last. Property tax delinquencies in Collin County are up more than 21 percent over 2001. Bankruptcy filings in the Eastern District of Texas (which includes Collin and Denton counties) are up 6 percent over last year. "Our numbers are up more than 30 percent over the last two years," says attorney Scott Lemke, a partner in the McKinney firm of Lemke & Pederson. "The triggering event that puts our clients into bankruptcy is income interruption--layoffs."

Anyone from the telecom industry is suffering from a double hit: They are laid off and nobody wants them. Their assets are gone, their stocks have tanked. They hope to sell their homes or refinance them, but the top-end housing market is sluggish and banks generally don't refinance homes when their owners are out of a job. "The people we are seeing now are what I call the truly desperate," attorney Jan Pederson says. "They have tapped out every resource, and they are still not working."

For Jenkins, filing for bankruptcy was humiliating (and the reason he did not want his real name used in this story). But it did bring him to church for the first time in years, and it drew him closer to his children as he became Mr. Mom, driving car pool and working on projects for the Plano PTA. "There is an arrogance and a complacency when things are going well," he says. "It's pretty humbling when you are forced to the conclusion that your situation is not only as bad as you thought, it's worse than you ever dreamed it could be."

There were days when John Bennett would practically force himself to go online, hitting the job boards for new postings. He would punch in keywords like "manager, MBA, German, telecom," trying to narrow his search. In the downturn, if you don't have the exact qualifications companies are looking for, there is no need to apply. The 15 hours a week he dedicated to this task might generate a few leads, which he would immediately chase with a résumé. Getting no response didn't stop him. He would then follow up with a phone call, most of which would be unceremoniously dumped into voice mail by an impassive receptionist.

Fifteen months of rejection and unanswered job queries caused him "constant battles with self-doubt," he says. But Bennett was resilient, and he managed to patch together an income from whatever sources he could find. "I don't say no to any work," he says. "In July, I painted a garage. I fix people's computers. I will sing for food."

He receives $50 a week from his church as its music minister. The church has also tapped its benevolent fund to pay the $800 repair bill when his '79 Volkswagen van broke down. He doesn't know how he could weather this crisis, if not for his firm religious beliefs and his unflinching austerity program.

"We never go out to dinner, don't even get pizza delivered," he says. He and his wife only buy clothes at thrift shops, and hand-me-downs are then recycled from child to child. They don't rent videos from Blockbuster, instead checking them out for free at the Richardson Public Library. Their '92 Corolla runs just barely, without heat and air conditioning. He and his wife plan "zero-cost family adventures" for their daughters--ages 10, 6 and 2--seeking out free concerts, new playgrounds and lakeside picnics. "My kids are fine; they really are," Bennett says. "My oldest, bless her heart, at night when we pray together, she is always asking for a bigger house and a new van."

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