Slippery Slope

March 26, 2004

I feel as if my life is on a slippery slope to nowhere and gaining speed. I grew up thinking that my working career would mirror my father's, and that my retirement would be earned along the way. I see now that retirement is something that will be denied me, just as a stable job has been.

I worked for almost 5 years at my first post-college job. I was a programmer for the State of Illinois. My title and salary advanced steadily until I ran into the boundaries of a small shop. The bureau chief didn't want to promote me to the same level as the lead analyst, too many chiefs he said. I half heartedly looked for other position within the government but I knew its restrictive nature wasn't for me.

Next I worked for a public utility for 8 and 1/2 years. It was a good job, filled with new challenges, and I again advanced quickly and steadily through the available titles. I started to think I had found a place to work the rest of my career. Then upper management gave the company away to a larger, near by utility. In the end nearly every one of the 80 people in the information technology department moved on to other jobs as the new owners already had an IT department. We weren't needed.

This was the first time I felt rejection, the first time I discovered that jobs weren't secure and guaranteed like the were in my father's day. I clung to the job as long as I could refusing to see the hand-writing on the wall. Finally I took a consulting position so that I could stay in town.

Almost from the start I wasn't happy with the new firm. They were more interested in my billable hours than in my happiness. The only bright spot in this period of my career was meeting and marrying my wife, Michele. Finally, after only 15 months I was ready to move on, and what a move. 2000 miles to the Pacific Northwest.

I took another consulting job, sight unseen, and we moved to Portland Oregon. It was a year of challenges and hardships, growth and fear. Consulting wasn't any better for a large company than it had been for a small one. The one client who had needed my specialized skills had an economic downturn and I was benched.

I was immature enough to believe that I was responsible for the lack of new engagement, and so I turned tail and ran to a new position clear across the country. Not as a consultant this time, but as an employee. For a pre-IPO software firm.

My job there lasted on 9 months before the burn rate ate through the available funds. Panic set in and I was desperate for a new job. After a week or two of madness I eventually found a new job in town, avoiding yet another cross-country relocation. No sooner had I started the new job when the old one called and wanted me back. I had already put into motion a plan to return to Springfield and work independently, but I didn't know when that would happen, so I returned to the IPO company for 3 more months.

We returned to Illinois in late 2000, and for the next 3 years rode a wild roller coaster of a ride. My contract rate was cut 10% by the client after just one year. All consultants had the rates cut, many were let go outright. The budget crises at the state was bad and getting worse. Last summer my first contract ended with no new contract in place. We spent a tense May and June waiting to see what would happen. At the last minute I was granted a 500 hour extension. 90 days for them to decide what to do next.

We sweated most of those 90 days wondering if I'd get a new contract, or another extension, or would I be out of work. A new extension, this one for 1500 hours was granted at the last minute. We thought the worst was behind us. We were wrong.

Barely a 6 weeks after the extension was in place the State wanted another rate reduction. Each vendor was pulled in and told what amount would be acceptable. Each vendor was expected to write a letter to the State "suggesting" the new rate as a way to help the State with its ongoing budget shortfall. In my case the suggested rate cut was 35%. This was huge blow. But short of moving there wasn't any choice in the matter.

In 3 short years our plans of saving money and achieving some measure of financial independence had been destroyed. Repeated periods of slow reimbursement by the Comptroller's Office had created huge cash flow problems. We had gotten ourselves way behind in our federal taxes. Financial freedom had nearly become financial ruin. Now to rub salt in this wound we would making over 45% less than the original plan called for.

The atmosphere between management and consultants, and even employees and consultants become strained, and some times hostile. What had been a bothersome place to work had become nearly unbearable. With the added financial strain something had to give.

The something that gave was me. I stopped playing by the rules and pushed the envelop. I dared them to notice me as person, and not just as a cog in the machine. They only noticed that the cog had gotten sharp, and they removed it from the machine.

What seemed so simple and clear 20 years ago as a career in data processing followed by a retirement is now muddied and confused. After two seemingly stable jobs, with planned retirement included, spanning nearly 13 years, I've had 4 jobs in 7 years, been forced out once, laid off once, given the chance to leave once, and fired. I have no retirement plan. I have no savings left. Michele and I will be lucky to clear what we originally put down on this house when it sells.

Sure, the house will sell, and we can pay off all that we borrowed here. We'll be able to start over in the next town. But starting over after 20 years on the job is painfully hard. Based on recent experience how can I expect the next job to last more than a couple of years? Moving to an area with a larger market for experienced technology workers will help. But moving itself is daunting. Knowing full well that there will be other moves, perhaps in 2 years, or maybe 5, makes it all the harder to push through the inertia holding us back.

All I ever wanted was to have a job that challenged me mentally and professionally while providing me with a decent retirement when I was 65. All I've gotten is the increasingly pointed message that my desires as a person mean nothing to the corporate goal of profit.

My job today is getting up and scanning the job boards for new postings to craft a cover letter for, new postings to send my resume to, new postings to hang a little bit of myself on in hopes of a better future. It is the hardest job in the world.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.