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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Pink-Slipped

One night under the stars with the unemployed

By Genevieve Roja

I ENTERED THE ROOM DOTLESS. I wasn't a red dot identifying myself as a "jobseeker," not a green dot meaning "recruiter," and not even a yellow dot symbolizing "schmoozer." I was a GDI, a God Damned Independent looking for the dotcom wounded, the casualties of the New Economy at San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce's first official Pink Slip Party. I wanted to see the faces of unemployed. Were they sad? Desperate? Suicidal? Still cocky and optimistic? One thing was for sure: there was enough alcohol to numb the pain.

I'm guessing the pink-slippers had wandered into Gordon Biersch in downtown San Jose looking for the same elbow-room-only crowd that was at Palo Alto's pink slip party at Blue Chalk Cafe two weeks earlier. When I arrived, Ken Heiman, the Chamber's associate director of communications, said he'd seen about 300 people come through the entryway to the white-tented space, which was decked out in Christmas icicle lights and blue and white diamond-checked banners hanging from the ceiling. There were two food stations serving roasted assorted vegetables, square cheesecake slices, cream puffs and some snack I couldn't identify except that it had salmon spread in it.

Being at a pink slip party is like being at a pumped-up version of a job fair, with more handshaking and booze, but without the obligatory polite chit-chat. Here, you dot-spot. My left breast pocket holding my nametag was popular all night. The vultures--one dressed in a cowboy hat, tie-dyed shirt; another in a four-button suit; another in a tight-fitting shirt, knee-length skirt and knee-high boots--were hovering and hungry. They'd swoop in, look at my nametag and fly off in a huff, apparently disgusted. These were animals from low tech (YMCA, SJPD) to high tech (Synapta, IBM) with a serious seek-or-be-sought-after attitude.

It worked something like this: If you were red, a jobseeker, then you searched out green. You hand in your résumé, talk about the company, get a business card and move on. If you were green, you did Q&A. If you were yellow, you ordered another drink. At a table set up by San Jose-based chip company Chameleon Systems Inc., red dots put their business card into a light wicker basket with a stuffed chameleon with the promise of a follow-up.

The "pink slip" has come a long way from when Henry Ford dreamed up a way to evaluate his assembly line employees. Each worker had a cubbyhole where at the end of the workday, a manager would place a piece of colored paper. A white piece of paper meant their work was acceptable, a pink one meant the boot. Now, decades later, pink is hip--and effective, says Chameleon CEO and green-dotter Chuck Fox.

"I thought this would be a good opportunity and a low cost opportunity," says Fox when asked about why he decided to join the other 56 recruiters at the Chamber's first pink-slipper. "We're one of few companies aggressively hiring, and it's also a very good way to interact with a [potential] candidate."

The atmosphere is remarkably jovial, with an air of promise--of things leading to somewhere, to a formal interview perhaps--in the same way that a robust downtown bar overflows with an air of getting laid. In either instance, the idea is to connect, hook up. I sidle up to a perceived wallflower and notice his dot. red. Ooooh, a hot unemployed.

"I got a lot of cards," says Ashmin Rau, a database administrator who was recently laid off by New Moon Systems in downtown San Jose. "I have a good feeling about the last job [inquiry]. I'm pretty sure I'll get a job; it's just a matter of time."

When I ask which company gave him good vibes, he says RHI Consulting, the same company he sent his résumé weeks earlier. The guy at the RHI table recognized his name. After weeks of waiting, sending résumés online--he thinks he sent out at least 100--Ashmin can relax and enjoy his Märzen.

"It's nice," says Ashmin about this pink-slipper. "It's very informal. It doesn't feel like a job interview. It's basically a chance to get your foot in the door."

There are no promises made here. A connect doesn't mean a jobseeker gets hired immediately. And forget about getting rich quick and retiring before 30.

"The average candidate, all he wanted to do was be rich overnight," says Chameleon's Fox. "Those days are over. Now we're trying to build value, build a company that's going to take four to five years to build. We want guys who want to stay four to five years."

That may be tough for the previously noncommittal types, the dotcom nomads that would change companies every couple of months in the hopes of bigger paychecks and better stock options and, in turn, have the bigger house, the better car. Even with the market souring, few are humbled.

"They're still betting and taking whatever they can find," Fox says.

And me? I'm hunting for a waiter. The salmon's a little fishy.

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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