Skip to main content

Get used to a life of layoffs

By Norman Matloff, Special to CNN
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
The HP layoffs will consist disproportionately of older workers, says Norman Matloff.
The HP layoffs will consist disproportionately of older workers, says Norman Matloff.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hewlett-Packard announced it will eliminate 27,000 jobs
  • Norman Matloff: Many laid-off HP employees will not have an easy time finding jobs
  • He says tech job market is great for young workers, but not for older, experienced workers
  • Matloff: Engineers, like everyone else, need to adjust to the realities of a global economy

Editor's note: Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.

(CNN) -- Are technology companies ailing?

Hewlett-Packard certainly is. The venerable behemoth announced it will implement a restructuring that includes eliminating 27,000 jobs. HP tried to bring itself around by replacing its CEO last year. That didn't quite do the trick, so now it's resorting to the good old-fashioned mass layoff.

One suspects that HP is a little too venerable. It was the first "Stanford spinoff," fittingly reflected in the presence of Hewlett Hall and Packard Hall in the engineering corner of the Stanford campus. Yet HP hasn't stayed ahead of the innovation curve, failing for instance to adapt well to the tablet craze.

Norman Matloff
Norman Matloff

This could be the end of an era.

Consider two Stanford neighbors of Hewlett and Packard Halls -- Gates Hall and the Huang Center. Bill Gates' company may be losing the innovation war, too. It's getting pummeled by the tablets as well, and just this week Google's Chrome Web browser overtook Microsoft's Internet Explorer in popularity. By contrast, the Huang Center was funded by Jen-Hsun Huang, whose firm NVIDIA has been revolutionizing the supercomputer field.

But won't those laid-off HP engineers be snapped up by the booming tech sector? Many will not.

The tech job market is excellent for younger workers, but many of those who are laid off and over 35 will find the market less welcoming. They're perceived as too expensive. The HP layoff will consist disproportionately of older workers. Indeed, jettisoning the veterans is often the hidden agenda in mass layoffs. It's no coincidence that many of the U.S. core engineering openings at HP have titles like Recent Graduate, Intern and Post Doc, all aimed at the younger crowd.

The difficulties of older techies have been investigated statistically in studies at American University and the National Research Council, but a very public human face was placed on this recently in an online town hall meeting with President Obama.

The wife of electrical engineer Darin Wedel explained to the president that her husband has never found a permanent job after being laid off by the electronics giant Texas Instruments. Granted, family issues restricted him to the Dallas area, but if the hype regarding a seller's market for engineers were true, Wedel should have been able to find something in that region, which sadly has not been the case.

A former student of mine was a star at HP for 10 years or so, acquiring patents and promotions. Yet he, too, got caught up in a huge layoff, and could find engineering work only sporadically afterward. Ultimately he left the field.

Those who survive this round of HP layoffs will likely find themselves being asked to not only do their own jobs, but also those of the departed. Engineers are exempt employees, hence no overtime pay, and HP will accrue a net reduction in labor costs.

Another tried and true fix for a sick firm (and for the well ones) is to ship work abroad. A few years ago, HP executive Ann Livermore made it plain: "A basic business tenet is that things go to the areas where there is the best cost of production." HP's jobs Web page shows that 48 of the 113 open core engineering positions are outside the United States.

Unlike Livermore's explicit position on cheap labor, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina said that HP offshores work because the American educational system doesn't develop good math skills in its students. That claim is a red herring. HP workers, including those being discarded, are among the best in the business, and were whizzes in math when they were in school. Many of our technology leaders, from Hewlett to Huang, are products of the American school system.

The offshored operations often require U.S.-based workers to make periodic site visits. Survivors of the HP layoffs who always wanted to visit Singapore may now get their chance -- monthly.

To her credit, HP's current CEO, Meg Whitman, conceded that layoffs "adversely impact people's lives." But she insisted that the action is necessary. Probably so, but the message here is that engineers, like many others, will have to get used to a life of layoffs in a globalized economy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Norman Matloff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT