The New New Economy?

As Seattle brushes off from the dot-com fallout, other strategies emerge.

Everybody knows somebody who was laid off from a dot-com recently, but does this mean that Seattle's heralded place in the New Economy has slipped? On the streets, it'd certainly seem so; just pass by a Capitol Hill coffee shop on a Tuesday afternoon and count the healthy-looking, unemployment benefit-receiving masses. Or tally the number of "Apartment for rent" or "Office space for lease" signs popping up around town like ads on a Web site.

Does such visual evidence confirm suspicions that the dot-com downturn is real, or are we being misled by media outlets that thrive on gloom and doom, on tracking layoffs and spreading gossip about fucked companies?

The truth, as it turns out, is elusive.

Because the state Employment Security Department and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics don't issue separate numbers for the dot-com sector, it's impossible to provide an accurate gauge of New Economy outcasts. Or to predict how many of these former employees will find work with another dot-com.

"It is the Employment Security Department's feeling that the re-employment prospects for laid-off dot-com workers, while perhaps unfavorable in the dot-com sector itself, is relatively favorable in non-dot-com industries," writes Gary Kamimura, a senior economic analyst with the ESD, in an e-mail.

Not only do the numbers show that ex-content providers, Web developers, and the like can find work away from computers—the state's unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in May—but statistics recently released from the trade group WSA suggest that trained specialists can choose from plenty of jobs in the local high-tech industry. WSA's report says that the state's tech industry is still thriving, with employment growth of 39 percent over the past two years and $30 billion in revenues. (Formerly known as the Washington Software Alliance, WSA represents software and Internet companies including Microsoft, but not e-commerce companies like Amazon.com.)

How does this jibe with conventional wisdom about prevalent layoffs or recent reports of skyrocketing vacancy rates for Seattle office space? WSA President and CEO Kathleen P. Wilcox says not to believe the hype. "We were growing faster than the national average, so a slowdown for us means we're still doing well," she says.

Perhaps. But a report released last week by Los Angeles commercial real estate company CB Richard Ellis' Seattle branch indicates that downtown office vacancy rates dropped from 7.59 percent in 1995 to a slim 1.01 percent in 2000, then shot up to 9.6 in the past year. What spurred such a dramatic turnaround?

"Unquestionably, the failure of all the dot-com and high-tech companies," says Stanley Kravitz, first vice president for CB Richard Ellis.

Such figures always come with the caveat that business is cyclical, but this does little to assuage the frustration of those who've been laid off or to encourage the ex-dot-commers to reenter the job market.

"There's not enough known about the cyclical nature of this industry," argues Marcus Courtney of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, or WashTech, an employees union. He says that high-tech executives and politicians aren't too keen on finding out more about the downturn, in part because mention of layoffs is bad P.R. As a result, government officials were ill-prepared. "They missed what was going on in the tech economy by a thousand miles," he says.

Despite executives' and government officials' unwillingness to confront the issue, a significant portion of Seattle's populace is struggling to come to terms with the post-dot-com boom. Whether by necessity or choice, these ex-tech workers are now working out some intriguing post-employment philosophies. In this series of stories and essays, Seattle Weekly explores the various ways young Seattleites are responding, from turning their backs on high-tech to wondering what went wrong to those few who still believe in the quaint notion that the New Economy offers big payoffs to those with bright ideas.

 
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