'I Got to Break Free': Laid-Off Tech Workers Search For New Purpose Outside Silicon Valley

Free of the tech industry's "golden handcuffs," laid-off workers are finding more meaningful work at fashion startups, wineries, and neighborhood retail shops. “I'm not above anything or below anything,” one laid-off tech manager said.
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Since she was laid off from her role as a recruiting manager at a San Francisco software company in March, Bree Silveira has picked up part-time weekend work at a retail store in her Northern California neighborhood. 

Practically, the job allows her to avoid paying for “expensive” daycare for her children by spending the week with her kids. But it also has served a different purpose as well. The tens of thousands of layoffs that have shrunk Silicon Valley to a fraction of its former size have left people like Silveira to imagine a potential life outside the technology industry.


What had been a stable and well-paying world has transformed, at least for a moment, into one of instability and fear, particularly for employees with non-technical skills like recruiters. Those who remain are left to wonder if the cuts are over or if they’ll be next, and laid-off workers compete for a handful of jobs, feeling left behind by an industry they had bet on. To weather the storm, one laid-off Amazon worker took a temporary job “stacking boxes” at Lowe’s.

“It has been a little rough,” said the Orlando-based Khalid Salim, who was laid off from his job as a quality assurance engineer at the hotel booking platform Hotel Engine half a year ago. “Recruiters ghost you all the time.” 

To try and improve his chances, Salim has spent extensive amounts of time redoing his resume and cover letters, networking on LinkedIn, and trying to learn additional skills to appeal to employers. He’s holding out hope he’ll get a job soon, but can’t help but wonder where else he’ll turn if he doesn’t get something soon. Increasingly, he finds his mom suggesting he make a career pivot to something like human resources. 

Silveira’s own layoff led her to wonder if she wants to rejoin an industry that’s so regularly conducting mass layoffs, she said, and the new job has given her room to search out other passions after nearly two decades in recruiting. Silveira took on the job as a test to see if she might want to open a small business of her own one day. Already, she had found she loves the daily interaction with customers. “It actually gives me a lot of energy and joy to just be staying busy and making some money to support my family,” she said.


“I like work, no matter what the work is,” Silveira added. “I'm not above anything or below anything.”

Not too long after Paige Webster was laid off by Meta in March, she decided she didn’t want to jump back into the tech sector, at least for a while. “The industry just feels too volatile right now,” she said. After almost a decade at the company, she wanted a job where she didn’t have to take her work home with her and could instead “prioritize rest, community and creativity.”

She decided to take a job at a local winery, where she makes $20 an hour. Before her time at Meta, she had worked similar jobs, and she found it “uplifting and energizing to connect with the local community in person” once again. She had weighed returning to the food and beverage industry before the layoff, but the high cost of living in the Bay Area made it difficult to give up the “golden handcuffs” she had obtained at Meta, she said.

On LinkedIn, though, she noticed that many of the posts from tech workers were “depressing and scary.” People spoke about applying to hundreds of jobs without a single offer or offered advice on how to “grind harder or push faster” in order to beat out other applicants. To cut against that, she wrote a post about her job on LinkedIn, including its lower pay, saying that while she was worried about covering her bills, she was “excited” about the switch. 


“Tech feels like a toxic and volatile place right now,” she wrote

Webster almost deleted the post, she said, but she didn’t, and it went viral, receiving over 16,000 likes. People flooded Webster with messages saying the post had given them courage to “bet on themselves in a similar way.”

Growing up in Seattle, Alexa Dickinson had always sort of assumed that people who wanted to be successful tried to work at a big tech company. Her father had spent his own career in the industry, and she had seen how stable that had been for him. Within days of graduating college in 2017, Dickinson had started a job in the marketing department at T-Mobile. 

"There wasn't a lot of thought beyond ‘Oh, this is just the thing I know works for people who want to be successful.’ It wasn't really a passion for tech. It was more just what I had seen,” she said. 

Over the next five years, though, Dickinson rose through the ranks, receiving various promotions until last October, when she was laid off. The experience made her feel like a number, not a person, and she started to think differently about her experience in the industry. Though she liked to do a good job at work, she was not particularly excited about T-Mobile’s mission, and she felt she had to play a part and “stifle” her more creative tendencies at work. 


“I didn't really get to be my true self,” Dickinson said. “I was being who I thought I should be to get the job I thought I should have.”

Before the layoff, Dickinson had wondered if she could somehow switch into something she was more passionate about, but she was too financially insecure to do so. When she received a severance package, it felt like a “blessing,” the exact support she needed to figure out her next move.

“I kind of came out of that just thinking like, ‘What if I was doing what I was doing a T-Mobile, but for something fun and exciting?’”

Dickinson now works part time at a fashion startup while also serving wine at a tasting room. The dual jobs fulfill her creative needs while also allowing her to act more like herself. “Fashion and wine are a lot more fun,” she said. Plus, she added, "I'm able to carry myself the same way throughout the day. It's something that's important to me, rather than putting on a mask and going to work as a version of myself."

Some former tech workers have taken the lessons of the tech industry with them after they left. Parker Burr, who worked in tech at companies like Tinder before pivoting into portrait photography, said his time in the industry helped him realize that successful startups often have to take risks and lose money in the early going in order to “eventually find success” later on. The lesson gave him the confidence to take a chance and start his own photo business. 


“I just figured … they're just people too. They’re not smarter than me. They just gambled bigger,” he said, adding that the ability to generate his own income has given him new control over his life. “I’m not an at-will employee that can have everything pulled out from under me at any point,” he said. 

Silveira, the recruiter, hasn’t given up on finding a new tech gig entirely, but she has found since her layoff that a lot of open recruiting roles are for entry-level positions that pay less than her last job did. So far, she has been unwilling to consider such opportunities out of fear it might drive down the pay she could command should the tech market rebound. “It's about knowing my worth and not wanting to drive down compensation for our profession,” she said. 

While she waits out the down market, Silveira is making sure her family does not live beyond its means. “Even if it's not what it used to be, we're still financially healthy, maybe not thriving,” she said. 

These days, Dickinson’s friends ask questions like “What's your next plan? Are you gonna try to work at Microsoft?” But they also feel stuck in an increasingly negative industry, not able to imagine life without the generous pay and benefits. Dickinson, however, doesn’t have to feel that way anymore.

“I got to break free,” she said.