Ghost town

On Monday, I talked to one of my former coworkers at Alcatel. He informed me that the technical writing group that I used to be a part of has basically ceased to exist.
I was laid off from my contract position at Alcatel on April 2, 2001, after working there for five years. It was a shock, of course, but I had been laid off before. Most of my fifteen-year career as a tech writer has been as a contractor, and contracts sometimes end with little or no warning. Thus, I was better prepared than some of the half-dozen others in my group who lost their jobs that morning. (One of them was a graphic artist who was not a contractor and had been with the company for twenty years.) No, what was most shocking about the layoff was that Alcatel Raleigh had been steadily expanding for the entire time I was there.
When I arrived at Alcatel in March of 1996, the building where I worked included a big empty space that my new coworkers called the Ballroom. It had previously been a factory floor, but the manufacturing operation had been moved to another building. To give you an idea of how big it was, I have to describe the one time I actually saw it used. Every year, in early December, the company treated everyone to a free holiday dinner. It was a company tradition: turkey, roast beef, ham, dressing, vegetables, rolls, dessert, the works. In 1996, Alcatel rented enough folding tables and chairs to fill the Ballroom and was able to seat the entire workforce of the Raleigh site — not just my building, but all the manufacturing folks, and everyone else from several other buildings — in that one huge room.
By the following December, this was no longer possible, because the Ballroom was gone. The company had renovated it and turned it into office space, subdividing it into several smaller spaces and filling them with cubicles. (Subsequent holiday dinners were served in the company cafeteria in multiple shifts.) Similar renovations were going on in other parts of the building; most of the Receiving area, for example, was walled off and turned into offices and meeting rooms. This was all necessary because the workforce of the Raleigh site was growing rapidly, and office space was needed for all the new people. My department was no exception — our area had several empty cubicles when I arrived, but these were soon filled with new employees. We eventually ran out of space and had to move to another part of the building after it, too, was renovated to maximize the number of offices it contained. By 2000, the building was pretty much maxed out, and there was talk of Alcatel acquiring another building in the area and moving some of us there.
That’s why the layoffs in April 2001 came as such a shock. After five years of continual expansion, the last thing I expected was for the company to start cutting its staff. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I can guess. Like a lot of companies in the data communication business, Alcatel was riding the crest of the Internet boom, selling networking hardware to the companies that were building the new online economy. The company’s rapid expansion was no doubt based on the assumption that the boom would continue. When the dot-com meltdown occurred, Alcatel must have found itself with a lot more employees than it needed.
I was fortunate to be in the first wave of layoffs. The job market hadn’t gotten nearly as tight as it would later in the year, and a writing position came open at IBM just when I began looking. (It also didn’t hurt that I had a brother working at IBM who was able to put my resume in the right hands.) In the months that followed, I read news reports of further staff reductions at Alcatel Raleigh, and realized that I was one of the lucky ones. Had I managed to hang onto my job beyond April 2, I would have still have found myself unemployed a few months later, when jobs were scarcer and IBM was no longer hiring.
When I called my ex-colleague Mark this week (to arrange to return a couple of books I borrowed), he brought me up to date. Alcatel Raleigh had announced another wave of layoffs (the fourth, I think) earlier that day. Mark hasn’t lost his job, but the entire technical writing group (what’s left of it) has been outsourced. They are still sitting at the same desks and doing the same work, but they are now employees of an outside agency that provides services to Alcatel. Their jobs have been “guaranteed for six months” (for whatever that’s worth), but no one really expects to be there much longer than that.
Mark describes the building I used to work in as “a ghost town.” Almost all of the new offices are empty. Mark thinks that the building, and perhaps the entire Raleigh site, will probably be closed down later this year. I’m sure he’s right; it can’t be cost-effective for the company to keep it open with so few people working there.
I try to imagine what the place looks like now, but I can’t. I suppose I could go visit Mark during the day, and he’d probably be happy to show me around. But I don’t think I want to do that. I’d rather remember Alcatel the way it was when business was booming, the future was bright, and we all thought the good times would last forever.

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