This year is shaping up to be the worst time for white-collar tech workers since the dot-com bubble burst.
Even before Amazon began laying off about 10,000 corporate employees on Wednesday, the job-loss numbers within the tech sector were grim. Just recently: Meta laid off 11,000 people, Stripe and Microsoft and Snap all axed about 1,000 employees each, Salesforce and Zillow let go of hundreds of workers, and Twitter cut about half of its 7,500-strong workforce. (And that was before Twitter cut thousands of content-moderation contractors, and before new owner Elon Musk fired 20 staffers for expressing their dissatisfaction with him.) According to data gathered by the website Layoffs.fyi, at least 86,700 tech jobs within the U.S. have been lost this year alone. There will be more to come.
In a time of scuttled prospects, high costs of living, economic slowdown, and general labor-market weirdness, where will the tens of thousands of newly displaced tech workers go? Tech may be contracting, but as of now, the rest of the economy is still hiring. And that’s where the former employees of Meta, Twitter, and Amazon may need to go.
The United States’ move-fast-and-break-things tech scene is finally slowing down and picking up some pieces, thanks to high interest rates, shrinking market potential, and dried-up investment. Some industry executives have also cited overenthusiasm for hiring—especially during the pandemic—and misplaced optimism for further sector growth as factors. “It has become fashionable for VCs to talk about how all these tech companies are overstaffed,” wrote Emily Mazo, an organizer with the labor advocacy group Collective Action in Tech, in an email. “Any of the workers who just got laid off will likely tell you that they were in fact understaffed, that they were working much more than 40 hours a week even before half their teams were fired, and that they have long lists of things they wanted to build but didn’t have the hands for. But workers are the first ones to be hurt in a downturn moment.”
Many of these coders, engineers, information analysts, designers, and recruiters who flocked to Silicon Valley in the 2010s are now facing a very different job market. Several firms that haven’t announced plans for layoffs are either slowing their hiring or freezing new positions altogether. At the same time, some workers are increasingly concerned about employer ethics and thinking twice about which companies they consider. Plus, any available jobs within the industry aren’t likely to include the same perks they once offered—in-office luxuries, generous financial benefits and leave policy, discounted travel costs—because of lot of those are being slashed, too.
And the positions for which companies are still hiring may not be ideal. One laid-off Twitter engineer told the San Francisco Chronicle that “while lots of recruiters have approached him, only about 20% are focused on full-time positions. The rest are seeking contract workers—who can more easily be let go.” This was in stark contrast, the engineer said, to the state of the industry during his last job hunt, when he found “a preponderance of full-time positions.” This matches what Jessica B. Davis, a professional career consultant, has been seeing. “Current job capacity isn’t allowing people room to shuffle around and transition,” she said. “In the past, you left one company and then went to the next, but now we’re seeing all kinds of constraints.”
On top of this, the safety-net protections put in place for workers laid off in the early pandemic have long expired, making this environment a harsher one for unemployed Americans supporting families. Some of these workers—those on certain work visas or with comparatively limited skill sets—will be far more desperate for new opportunities than others. “The ‘tech worker’ designation obfuscates a lot of ways that some of our coworkers are already in more precarious situations than others,” Emily Mazo said. “Some are contractors who are already getting paid much less than direct employees, some work in content moderation or customer service and are more likely to be making a quarter the salary of a software engineer.”
It’s also worth mentioning, as Davis told me, that people from marginalized backgrounds make for a significant portion of the laid-off workforce; at Twitter alone, trimmed costs decimated members of and resources for employee resource groups focused on Black and female Twitterers. Such ex-employees already face a hard-enough time in the job market thanks to systemic disadvantages. The tech slowdown won’t make any of that easier.
There could be options outside of Big Tech. One San Francisco–based venture capital firm is offering potential six-figure loans to startups conceived by recently laid-off techies (though it’s unclear whether such startups will be able to sustain themselves beyond that, thanks to a cooling investment environment). Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management is allowing displaced workers to apply for its MBA program without requiring a standardized test. Executives within or adjacent to the tech sector are publicly posting about opportunities at their workplaces.
The green-tech sector, which is riding a high of increased demand and government funding, is particularly eager to recruit some of these laid-off and highly skilled workers, as the tech publication Protocol—RIP—recently reported. One of the firms pushing this recruiting attempt, Climate Draft, refers to itself as “a member-supported coalition of climate tech startups and VCs on a mission to collectively bring more top talent, investment, and commercial opportunities into the space.” It’s a relatively new venture, having launched only two months ago, but co-founder and CEO Jonathan Strauss told me its membership already represents “close to $10 billion of climate assets,” including venture capital funds and renewable-energy software. “There are three categories of talent the climate sector needs: engineers for hardware, coders for software, and people who know how to run a startup or business,” he said. “We’re here to provide them an on-ramp to climate tech, which can otherwise be a fragmented marketplace.”
Other fast-growing employment prospects that could use tech skills: startups for marijuana services in states where the drug is legal (like California), logistics and supply chain operations, health care, cybersecurity infrastructure, data analysis, hospitality and travel, and plain old information technology. Jobs in such fields tend not to be included within tech-employment stats, and they may not have the same benefits and wages as a FAANG heavyweight. But these other sectors very much include tech duties—for maintaining software and hardware, for charting financial flows and statistics, for building custom apps, and for constructing programs that customers can make use of in a still-very-interconnected world.
Through it all, the people who’ve supported jobless tech workers most are, well, jobless tech workers themselves. Twitter employees miffed by Elon Musk have found much solidarity over the past few months of chaos, helping one another deal with their new circumstances, speaking openly about their experiences, and forming encrypted group chats and virtual communities. Displaced techies across the sector have formed private LinkedIn groups to round up opportunities and provide emotional support. Other job seekers have compiled detailed “Alumni Lists” of fellow ex-workers from companies like Dropbox and Stripe, providing easy databases for potential recruiters.
So, the opportunities exist, though they may require a bit of outside-the-box hunting and, in general, a reset in thinking regarding what’s included within the tech profession. “We’re not going to again see the significant growth that we once saw with these tech companies,” said Davis. “But eventually we’ll see some sort of comeback for these careers.”
Are you a tech worker—recently laid-off or otherwise—with information you’d like to share with me? Email me at [email protected].
This piece has been updated to clarify how much net worth the Climate Draft coalition represents.