If you've been a project manager or senior-level estimator for at least five years and have worked for a company that has been in business for at least 10 years, doing primarily new construction, I'd bet it's a one in five chance that you are unemployed at the moment. From what I have heard from friends and colleagues across the country, even the strongest and most established firms are literally squeezing pennies from every possible source by reducing or eliminating bonuses and commissions, reducing base salaries, and downsizing with waves of reduction in forces (RIF).
In the past, a firm did whatever it took to keep their most experienced project managers for fear that the competition would hire them. And for gosh sakes, they would never let any of their senior-level estimators go — no matter what — because the tougher a recession would get, the more extreme the need for experienced personnel would be. But the present is very different than times past — these are the most unique and difficult times any of us have ever seen — the business world as we know it is gone.
Consider yourself to be among one of the fewest of the luckiest if your salary hasn't been cut or you haven't been laid off. Don't mistake your current survival for anything else than what it is — good luck. Experience, knowledge, ethics and connections just don't matter anymore. Please don't fib by telling me you've not thought about and worried about the possibility of a salary cut, or worse yet being laid off.
So, what will you do if it does happen? Do you have a game plan or are you still in state of denial? If you haven't done some preliminary planning on what you're going to do when and if something happens, then it's time to plan. Maybe it will or won't happen, but at least you'll be ahead of the game no matter what.
If you are called into your manager's office and you know what is coming, the very first thing you need to do is nothing. Yes — you read that correctly — when that moment of the RIF tsunami finally hits you, the first and best thing you can do is absolutely nothing. Let your boss and human resources do what they need to do to keep things as nice and legal as possible for all parties involved. And no matter what else you do or don't do, say or not say, keep your cool! The moment you're let go is not the moment to settle all past (real or imagined) hurts and slights, nor is it the moment to act like you didn't have a sense it was coming anyway.
After the litanies are given, don't allow yourself to be forced into signing anything at that time. No matter how strong your are mentally, and even if you figured it was coming soon, that actual moment of separation creates a state of shock within anyone's psyche, and it is not the time to sign any documents. Ask if you can review them when you get home. Another 24 hours or so isn't going to hurt anyone, and the extra time will allow you to fully process what's happened. When cleaning out your office, take your time. If possible, ask a friend or coworker to check your desk to make sure you haven't forgotten anything before you leave.
Once at home, make the phone calls you need and want to make, and go ahead and immediately start working your Rolodex and cell phone speed dial. Word will be out on the street soon enough that you're no longer with your old firm and it's a sign of respect to those you know and trust to let them know personally about your situation. While not outright begging, go ahead and politely mention that you would appreciate any and all help in regards to possible leads for other employment. This might require a small bit of humility on your part, but being humble isn't a bad thing.
After making that first round of phone calls, allow yourself a brief time to grieve. Losing a job, even one you expected to lose for whatever reasons, is no less traumatic than losing anything else truly important in your life, and you need to acknowledge this. Don't deny your feelings. In private you can vent, rage, cry, drink, punch walls (not people), and write letters about your feelings (don't send these letters to people; just use the writing process as a way to work through your thoughts). Do what you need to do to work through all the feelings of betrayal and loss. Then when all your anger is spent, shave, take a shower and throw yourself into your newest job — looking for a job.
From that moment on, keep your cool. Minimize and control your own personal expenses as much as possible, but don't sacrifice your means of finding work such as your wheels, phone or Internet. Work your networks and contacts. Work the job boards, but don't expect much from them. Also, don't be ashamed to draw unemployment even if you don't necessarily need the money right away (you just might need money later). Use all the help your state employment security commission department can offer, but whatever you do remember that you've been through worse than this at some point in the past and survived. And know that by working smart and hard, you'll be ready for the next career opportunity that comes your way.
Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.