To a laid off engineer, so what if the nation’s jobless rate is down to 3.4%?

Lurking behind Friday’s positive jobs report that US unemployment fell to 3.4%—the lowest level in 35 years—is a nagging reality of massive layoffs in the tech sector in recent months.

For any of the 218,000 (and growing) engineers and tech workers recently laid off at major companies including Meta and Alphabet, the reality is that there are many thousands of open tech jobs. Across the US in all occupations, there are now about 11 million open jobs with a sizeable percentage* of that number in tech and other STEM careers. 

Other good news Friday was that the US added 517,000 jobs in January, according to the Labor Department, snapping a string of five months of slowing employment growth.  But how does that positive report feel to someone in tech who was recently laid off?

“The Labor report is very positive as it relates to 517,000 hires, but we also have massive layoffs going on in certain industries,” said Jason DeKoster, managing director of strategic recruitment at Actalent, told Fierce Electronics in an interview. “It’s tough to pay attention to that [progress] when you have the uneasiness out there.”

As DeKoster noted, the US still has 11 million open jobs and tech workers can seemingly find a job, but the real trick is finding a fulfilling tech job that goes beyond meeting the basic need of making a good income. “Tens of thousands of highly employed [tech workers] will get their basic needs met, but will they stay?” The question is one for both workers and for employers. 

“There’s a big difference in having income and having highly fulfilling work,” DeKoster added.

Obviously, “fulfilling work” varies from person to person, but especially for engineers and others in STEM, it often comes down to holding a job doing important work where they can make a difference. And, employers need to help workers connect to those loftier goals.

“If people don’t connect day to day to work with a purpose, it’s unfulfilling,” DeKoster said. “If they are not able to draw a connection to the difference they make in the world, they could feel empty and ask, ‘Where’s this company going, and this program going?’  A lot comes down to leadership and part of being a leader is connecting workers to their importance. That’s advice for managers.”

What often happens in many technology companies over time is that entry level engineers will be promoted to low-level management jobs “where they are not necessarily good at managing people,” he said.  Managers in technical fields may focus on coding or crafting embedded software, so that’s what they care about more than teaching and coaching co-workers or helping someone become better at their work.

Remote work, which predominates in many technical jobs, makes it even harder for managers and workers alike to connect to the higher purposes of a company.  “Employees care about remote work for flexibility and cost savings, but what it doesn’t provide is the opportunity to socialize” and provide a sense of connection, as in a physical office.

For a boss, “it’s easier to let go of someone through email or a virtual conference call if you don’t know them or see them every single day. It’s easier to lay somebody off if they don’t see that relationship.”

In that sense, remote work imposes a greater burden on both bosses and employees to create solid relationships. “Employers need to get better at engagement and creating community if they want to take care of their most important asset, which is the people,” DeKoster said.

“There’s a lot of pressure on middle management. Some never imagined themselves as leaders of people and now they have to lay off people and still have work to get done, product launches and more. That pressure cooker is there.”

DeKoster’s advice for both workers and managers facing layoffs

If you are a laid off engineer, DeKoster advises you remember you are highly employable and you have options.  Plenty of recruiters want to talk to you.  With a deficit of workers in all industries right now, it’s important to remember you are highly employable because of your education and experience and what you gained as an employee..

Ask yourself: What am I looking for? What are your basic needs and how will you meet those needs? Aside from compensation and benefits, what are the other things that matter?  It’s important to step back and ask if a particular company can provide those things.

 If you are an employer or manager facing the need to lay off engineers, it is important to remember that layoffs are about the workers involved, not only the need to cut spending.  There are a lot of alumni out in the larger work place who can impact a company’s reputation.  

Even when a company requires an NDA to protect a laid off worker’s severance pay or other benefits, the reputation of a company laying off workers will ultimately show through. “There’s a difference between someone saying nothing about a company because they can’t and being a promoter of an organization,” DeKoster said. A laid off employee under an NDA can still be a promoter who might say, “Despite the challenges, despite the situation I can’t speak to, I loved that place.”

 Conversely, a manager can help instill a sense of love for a company in a laid off worker, DeKoster believes.

“It might be thanking someone for their time on the team or the work they did,” he said. It might take the form of a sincere video or conference call from the vice president of engineering or even a handwritten note.

“It is those little things that matter, even during a moment like this,” DeKoster said. A conversation after the layoff might include asking what options the former worker has for a next job, or even saying, “I hope you found something that fits.”

“All of these things connect us and regardless whether a worker is a software engineer or works in the machine shop, engagement needs to be very personal.” 

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* The 11 million job openings as of Dec. 30 reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics on Feb. 1 include 1,746 for trade, transportation and utilities, 1,956 for business and professional services and 2,119 for education and health services.  All of those categories may employ engineers and programmers in STEM fields, although the latest data does not describe openings by job title or the tech sector as a separate group.