skip navigation
Support KUOW
Anne Whitacre

Anne Whitacre


Get A Job

Carolyn Adolph

This past year in Washington state 39,000 people ran out of unemployment benefits. As people run out of resources, their job searches often stretch away from chosen fields and lower on the pay scale. But as Carolyn Adolph reports, it doesn't have to be that way.


Whitacre: "Can I get you a cup of coffee?"

Anne Whitacre's last unemployment check landed here at her house in Queen Anne around Thanksgiving. It's around that time two years ago that she lost her job. It wasn't personal. It was November 2008 — you remember.

NPR: "The government has unveiled two new programs ... President–elect Barack Obama ... we have make sure ... jolt to the economy."

Back then Anne Whitacre was at Gehry Associates, a big architectural firm in Los Angeles. She'd been headhunted away from Seattle with a huge pay increase. The company even bought her a dog. But then the economy starts sliding. She's pulling 60–hour weeks on a project — then it's suddenly cancelled.

Her boss wanted to see her in the small conference room.

Whitacre: "He said, I don't know how to tell you this but we're going to have to let you go. I kinda thought that might be happening, but I've never been laid off before."

At first it seems fine. Whitacre calls up a former employer and gets a tentative offer that she's told would be real in February.

Whitacre: "I figured that that was a good time to get some foot surgery done. So that I could get it taken care of before I went back to work again. I honestly thought I would be back to work at the end of February."

But this recession is different. It disintegrates investment money. It wipes out lending. It kills the big commercial real estate projects Anne Whitacre works on.

In April that tentative job offer she got earlier is dead too.

Whitacre: "That's when I started getting worried, and that's when I decided to cash in my 401K."

If you've ever had to break into savings, you know what it's like to make that decision. By this point Whitacre's severance is spent. She's living on unemployment. She's paying rent in Los Angeles and costs for her Seattle house.

She hasn't worked in five months. She's losing touch with her field.

Whitacre: "I was getting too divorced from the current construction climate. And that I saw as an issue."

Whitacre kicks into high gear. She lets go of her apartment in Los Angeles, drives up the coast and moves into her house in Queen Anne.

She starts a consulting business to help reconnect with people in her field. She figures she has enough in savings and unemployment benefits to last 11 months.

But nothing beats the stability of a job. Instead of blanketing companies with resumes, she focuses her job search on a handful of firms, pinpointing the people who can help get her hired.

Whitacre: "Everything is built on relationships and I'm sure that probably every other profession is the same way. You refer work to people you know. You recommend people you know for jobs."

She keeps up with professional lunches. Then it gets hard to pay for her meals. So Whitacre adjusts. She uses airline points to fly to conferences. She bunks with a friend to save money.

Attending the conferences gives her valuable face time with people in the firms where she wants to work.

Whitacre: "So they weren't formal job interviews. But they were just let's meet and greet and talk to each other. I want you to keep me in your mind."

Meanwhile she's all over professional web sites, writing articles and blog posts. Getting her name out there.

Whitacre: "I actually got two consulting projects from people who know me only through LinkedIn."

But payment and job offers are both slow to come in. Then it's November, the unemployment benefits cut out and the holidays are approaching. Then an email, it's a company Whitacre's been thinking might have contract work. Turns out they'd rather hire her full time.

But instead of jumping on the offer, Whitacre whips around and contacts two other firms.

Whitacre: "And I said look I have a job offer on the table and I'm going to accept it in a week unless you give me a counter offer."

Adolph: "Okay so I have a question about that. Another person might throw themselves upon the job offer like a dog on a bone. But you don't do that."

Whitacre: "No. Because by this point I had been talking to two other firms, and I wanted to make sure I got the right offer for me. And the firm I ended up going with made me an offer the very next day."

Adolph: "So you didn't go with door number one."

Whitacre: "I didn't go with door number one."

At age 57 Anne Whitacre is off to San Francisco, to a prominent architectural firm, Gensler. She'll be doing the specs on a project in Hawaii.

Statistics aren't kind about people like Anne Whitacre. At her age and after being unemployed for so long, the odds were against her coming back at the top of her field. But even long into the search, a focused and well–executed strategy got her right back where she wanted to be.

I'm Carolyn Adolph, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW