3 Strategies for Professionals with No Recession Experience

In the summer of 2008, I moved to California and joined Boeing as an engineer. In August 2008, the recession hit and it was not clear whether we were all going to keep our jobs. 

I clearly remember having a conversation with my new friend and coworker Mike Esposito about whether we were going to lose our jobs. Some people around us certainly did, and the company took drastic measures by cutting benefits like education reimbursements. 

I kept my job but it really sucked for the next three years. My salary increases and career progression came to an abrupt halt, and I did not add much to my base salary in raises over the next three years.

There was seemingly not enough work to go around for engineers when the recession first started. Boeing’s customers had put purchasing decisions on hold and all of the hiring that Boeing had done in anticipation of new contracts now looked like a terrible idea. 

I made two entrepreneurially minded friends (Alok Patel and Scott Shiffres) who felt that this would be a good time to work on a startup idea. When the startup didn’t work out after a few months, we pivoted to applying to graduate schools to use the recession time to gain new skills. The problem was that the school application process for top schools could take up to two years. 

What should I do during this recession time?

Well, recession sucks. We used the 2008 recession to learn a lot of new skills and we also tried to have an outsized impact. As young kids out of graduate school, the two things we certainly had on our side were time and the ability to work very very hard.

I ended up signing up for four jobs inside Boeing at the same time. Boeing had an internal directory where I could look up every single employee and reach out to them either to grab a coffee or try to become a mentee to some of the more senior folks.

The more technical senior folks were of no help. They were very worried about their own jobs as well, so I ended up having better conversations with managers. Talking to managers, I was surprised to learn about the hiring freeze on a large number of jobs. While external hiring was not possible, the pain points to the company were still there.

I made the bold choice to have an upfront conversation with my own manager. I proposed that if I could make sure I completed all my current deliverables, I would start to contribute to other teams. At first he was reluctant to my proposal, but I promised to stop any stretch projects the moment it wasn’t working out for my current team.

After that conversation, I scheduled coffee chats with many hiring managers with job openings on their teams but were unable to hire because of the hiring freeze. 

Over the next three years, I performed four different jobs inside the company with essentially no additional salary. I took a job as a customer service engineer to debug technical issues for our customers. I took another job as a testing integrations engineer where I worked on the production floor with union works to actually build the satellites. And lastly I took another job with the management team to help build a forecasting tool for hiring. These three roles were in addition to the projects I was assigned at my day job for Steve Koffman and Andrew Robertson in the flight controls group at Boeing.

At each one of those jobs my goal was to deliver an outsized impact so that nobody found out that I had other jobs at the same time. Or, at the least, none of my managers felt that I wasn’t delivering the value of the current job. 

Deliver an outsized impact

What I can tell you is that during this time I felt incredibly frustrated and pigeonholed. I had no idea how I would ever get out of this company or see better pay over the course of my career. And trust me, I did not stop applying to other jobs outside of the organization either; nobody was willing to hire me. While I felt absolutely hopeless at the time, in hindsight I can tell you that these three years were a privilege. Not only did I keep my job but I also learned new skills and delivered impact that was beyond my job description in a way that helped me get exposure to many different skill sets.

You might think that I was a special cookie, but I was not. Everyone in my cohort who hunkered down (Mike Esposito, Chris Mintle, George, Haytham) all came out of the recession and built successful careers outside of Boeing.

Over the last nine years (2011-2020), the playbook flipped around so that companies have the privilege of hiring talented workers. During a recession, the playbook flips where you are privileged to have a job. To survive, make sure that you deliver outsized impact while not expecting much in return in the short run. Use this time wisely to (1) learn a lot of new skills, (2) solve business problems that you don’t think you could solve, and most importantly show that you (3) earn your job every single day.