The Brand Called Jim
The tech bust left Jim Stewart jobless for a long, long time. Now he's blazing a career trail that many of us will someday follow
(MONEY Magazine) – If you're a white-collar worker and the family's main breadwinner, Jim Stewart has lived your worst nightmare—and come out okay. Maybe better than okay.
Stewart lost his $156,000-a-year job as a senior program manager at Genuity, a Boston area high-tech firm, in May 2001. By December 2002 he was sorting mail on the graveyard shift at the post office so his two children could have a decent Christmas. By the next summer, still without a job, Stewart was beginning to feel desperate. Countless hours networking, interviewing and scanning the want ads on Monster.com—at 2 a.m., before the crowds, he says—had led nowhere. Stewart had decided to enter bartending school. He had already entered therapy. "You feel washed up," he recalls. "You were in demand, and now you're not. I had all these thoughts of 'Why me?' and 'What did I do wrong?'"
The big picture didn't offer Stewart much hope. From March 2001 until April of this year, the number of information technology workers in the U.S. declined by 400,000. In Boston, a high-tech hot spot, more than one-third of the people in Stewart's industry lost their jobs when the bubble burst. The "new economy" business magazines that were all the rage among techies used to exhort their readers to develop the "Brand of You" and elect themselves the "President of Me Ink." Stewart has learned that you may have no choice in the matter. The nature of white-collar employment is changing, and Jim Stewart is the New American Manager: educated, skilled, experienced—and in business for himself.
The accidental consultant Stewart never did end up tending bar. After pounding the sidewalks for 20 months, he formed J.P. Stewart Associates, a consultancy specializing in strategic project management. He's now one of the more than 1 million white-collar workers in this country who have turned, more or less permanently, to contract or consulting work since 2001. It used to be that consulting was something to tide you over. Now it's a career, especially in tech or related industries, where companies increasingly are "skinnying themselves down," as Howard Rubin, a research fellow at Stamford, Conn. consultant META Group, puts it. They hire fewer full-time employees but bulk up their "secondary work forces" of consultants and contractors, Rubin says. Pay and perks for this new profession may be less than in corporate life, but it offers independence and flexibility. And it's the future, like it or not.
Stewart, now 50, had often thought that he would like to be an entrepreneur by the time he got to this age, but he wasn't expecting to be pushed into it. As the downturn took hold, he thought the odds of his being laid off were low, and the chance of protracted unemployment lower still. Instead, recruiters who had once sought him out were dodging his calls, or they were out of work too. Mailing résumés and going on interviews yielded nothing. Those early months after the layoff, he says, were the worst for him psychologically. "My philosophy had been, 'No job, short path to the street. No job, on the street.'" And here he was, without a nibble.
"Jim would come up to me and say, 'I don't know what to do,'" recalls Stewart's wife Laura, 47, a part-time assistant teacher of children with special needs. Talking with others in the same boat, though, seemed to help. Stewart became a hard-core networker, volunteering with a small business help group that formed in the downturn. "It was a big thing that kept me going."
Feeling the pinch Still, he knew that the family's financial situation was deteriorating. The Stewarts were never big spenders. They've lived for 10 years in their Burlington, Mass. home and carry a monthly mortgage payment of $1,100. They drive a 10-year-old Mazda and a 1999 Toyota and have modest credit-card debt. But in the course of two years of unemployment, things got tight, then tighter. The family canceled an addition to their home. They put up a three-foot-deep swimming pool to take the place of family vacations and summer camp for their children, Jessica, now 15, and Nick, 11. A trip to the mall became a trip to the discount center. Even so, the Stewarts eventually exhausted Jim's $64,000 severance package as well as most of their emergency fund of $18,000. The couple had saved $15,000 for the kids' college, but that was gone too. Stewart was hoping to avoid dipping into his $45,000 401(k) account. "It was heartbreaking to see the kids' college savings dwindle," says Laura. "Just heartbreaking."
Three weeks of sorting mail at the post office, and a particularly discouraging brush with a job that never materialized, pushed Stewart to try something more radical. "The company I was interviewing with had built a new facility just before the downturn, and when you walked around there, you could hear your voice echo from the emptiness of the place," he recalls. "They had been decimated by layoffs. After that, I finally said the hell with it."
In January 2003, Stewart formed his own company. Months went by with little work, but then all that networking paid off. A former colleague he had reconnected with while he was doing volunteer work sent him an e-mail: She had just recommended him for a six-month stint as a $62.50-an-hour project manager at J.P. Morgan Chase in Manhattan. Would he be available, starting in July? Stewart hated the idea of leaving his family, but he and Laura decided they didn't have much choice. When an offer came through, Stewart grabbed it.
The assignment, he says, "helped me to get into the routine of working again and feeling needed—and knowing that my skills were marketable." It also gave him the confidence to pursue strategic consulting jobs, not simply contract work in which he would manage a project and then move on.
Stewart made about $64,000 last year and expects to make between $75,000 and $80,000 this year, about half his salary at Genuity. His wife will earn $12,000, and her job provides the family's health-care benefits. For the first time since Stewart was let go, he's thinking about saving for retirement again, though he knows that a life of leisure is a lot further off than it once seemed.
"My own rules" These days, Stewart keeps several spreadsheets handy to monitor the finances. "The thing that I worry about every day is cash flow," he says. In return, he's won an independence not possible in The Corporation. "I don't kid myself that I have no boss," Stewart says. "My customers are my bosses. But I know that I can play by my own rules to a certain extent, make a living and not feel stuck."
To date, there's been no cash-flow crisis, and Stewart has formed a relationship with a larger consulting firm that opens up more opportunities for him. He splits his time between his home office and client sites, mostly around Boston. He loves owning his schedule. "I can take time off during the day and during the summer, and be with my kids. I can make up the slack at night." He stopped seeing a therapist last year and is optimistic, if cautious, about his future.
The family's lifestyle is recovering too. The occasional trip to Abercrombie & Fitch for Jessica remains largely a thing of the past, and Stewart's dream to celebrate his 50th birthday at the Athens Olympics faded away. But so has Jim Stewart's nightmare. The family recently took their first vacation in three years, going to Toronto, and, as Stewart points out, $75,000 or better for your second year in business isn't too shabby. "Adaptability and flexibility are key," he says. "I've learned that you need to change with the times or die."