The View From the Bottom

One morning in July he starts to cry and can't stop. There is no money left; he has sold or hocked nearly everything he owns and is still $30,000 in debt. Gone are his two cars, his two boats, his 401(k) savings, his dignity. One layoff followed the next--first at Fujitsu, then at WorldCom, then at a start-up that went belly-up. Suddenly at 33, Ted Woods, a man who thrived on structure, is in free fall. It wasn't supposed to be like this, not after he worked his way up from telecom installer to engineer, through the boom years, the brutal 15-hour-a-day years--to prove he was better than the next guy. He is Ted Woods, third-generation Air Force, not some recovering crack addict or psychotic street person conversing with God on his celestial cell phone. Yet he is just as homeless and just as broke as some of the more familiar residents of The Samaritan Inn, a shelter in McKinney. It is here that he will seek refuge from the chaos caused by the meltdown of the Telecom Corridor. It is here that he will finally hit bottom.

John Bennett unloads a flatbed full of sweet potatoes that had been donated to God's Food Pantry the day before by a farmer in Grand Saline. Moving quickly on this hot September day, Bennett breaks a sweat as he sorts the sweet potatoes into crates and wheels them into the Plano pantry and the grateful arms of its gregarious co-founder Bobby Glenn Taylor. Volunteering at the pantry somehow justifies those frequent times when Bennett must accept a handout himself--whatever it takes to keep his wife and three girls from going hungry. Bennett, a former Alcatel project manager, has two master's and three undergraduate degrees. Yet at 40, he has been unemployed for 15 months and if not for living life on the cheap and some now-and-again work as an information technology consultant, his family might be on the streets.

Walter Jenkins (not his real name) has just fulfilled his car-pool obligations by dropping his children off at school. He grows jealous of those stuck in rush-hour traffic, jealous because they have a job and he doesn't. Returning to his Plano home, he braces himself for his morning ritual: booting up his computer, checking his e-mails and searching the Internet job boards for work. Twenty-three years in the IT world working for Nortel and a variety of high-tech firms, and he is either overqualified or unqualified for what's out there. It's not uncommon for him to send out 50 to 60 résumés a week, and not uncommon for him to hear back from no one. But it's his job to find a job, and he spends five hours a day browsing the Web, e-mailing recruiters, networking with business acquaintances who just might know somebody who knows somebody. What choice does he have? Like so many in the telecom boom, he has lived beyond his means. Now with the bank threatening to foreclose on his house, he filed for bankruptcy. Hated like hell doing it. Hated the stigma. Hated even more the feeling of despair that drove him to it.

Daily, we are assaulted by headlines screaming of massive layoffs in the telecommunications sector: "Telecom's bloodletting spreads to Fujitsu...Alcatel adding job cuts [10,000]...Telecom giant SBC to cut 11,000 jobs." Industry-wide, more than 400,000 telecom workers--engineers, installers, project managers, sales consultants--are out of work, with little prospect of finding any. Growth in the telecom industry is not just flat, "it has contracted," says Melanie Swan, director of telecom economics at RHK, a San Francisco research firm. "Capital expenditures by service providers [such as AT&T and SBC] are down 50 percent this year over 2001, which were already down 40 percent from the year before. More than half the workforce of telecom equipment providers [Nortel, Lucent] have been laid off." Few industries in the history of American business have risen so high and fallen so hard. Telecom stocks that were valued at more than $100 a share just two years ago now trade as penny stocks, if they trade at all.

Beneath the headlines of the technology bubble bursting and the NASDAQ numbers crumbling, beneath accusations of flagrant fraud and salacious greed stemming from the WorldComs and the Global Crossings and whoever else is revising their earnings statements under penalty of law, lies the personal wreckage of those unfortunate employees drawn in by the mania of boom, then coldcocked by the anemia of the bust. Much of the body count has amassed in Richardson, the home of the Telecom Corridor and the birthplace of the telecom revolution.

The corridor became a huge draw for equipment providers, among them mammoth multinationals such as Nortel, Alcatel and Fujitsu. These are the vendors for telephone service providers--carriers like AT&T, WorldCom and SBC, which demanded the latest, fastest upgrade for their Internet, voice and mobile networks. It was here in the mid-to-late '90s that telecom engineers and managers were treated like draft picks, receiving signing bonuses, new cars and stock options, whatever it took to lure them away from other companies. It was here that venture capitalists poured money into start-ups, believing that nothing could stop the exponential growth of the Internet. It was also here beginning in late 2000 that layoffs hit the hardest when demand stopped and supply didn't. The Richardson Chamber of Commerce estimates layoffs in the corridor's major telecom companies at around 15,000, which seems remarkably low. But even if accurate (the Chamber is the resident booster for the Telecom Corridor and holder of its registered trademark), these numbers only tell part of the story.