The last few months have not been good for tech workers. Groupon laid off 500, Spotify laid off 600, Yahoo cut 1,600, Paypal 2,000, Salesforce 7,000, Microsoft 10,000, and Alphabet–Google’s parent–laid off 12,000. Meta—the company behind Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, just pink-slipped 10,000 of its workforce—after laying off 11,000 in November. And that’s just the household-names. Swiggy, Fandom, Sophos, and GoMechanic announced double- and triple-digit workforce cuts.
At the same time, vacancies in federal, state, and local governments totaled 1,080,000 positions at the end of 2022.
I’m no mathematical genius, but is it possible there might be some way to move at least some of those laid off tech workers into jobs in public service?
Sure, most government workers don’t enjoy ping pong tables, catered meals, beer bashes and concerts, massage specialists, and ten grand to customize their work spaces.
But the fact is, such perks were already beginning to disappear at some tech workplaces, a decent number of tech workers never had them, and now none of the newly-unemployed have them.
Even those who are accustomed to fancy Santa Clara or palatial Palo Alto workplaces might find themselves very much at home in public service jobs. After all, the mission statements for many of the tech startups at least pay lip service to lofty goals of improving the quality of life on the planet–and saving the planet. “We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion,” says one. “Be Earth’s most customer-centric company,” says another. And then there’s: “Our mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.”
It will also be a good exercise for those who have bought into the trope that the private sector–particularly in tech–is especially innovative in ways the public sector is not. Learning why the public sector–controlled, as it is, by representatives of the public–operates as it does could be an important education for these workers. It might make them better citizens–or at least better-informed citizens.
Firefighters run into buildings from which people are running out. Teachers reach kids despite all the obstacles of inequity, poverty, and mental health issues. Social workers provide lifelines to the dispossessed, disenfranchised, and disregarded. Public service is the home of everyday heroics.
If the stereotype of Silicon Valley techies is true (a big if, admittedly), they are adventurous types who relish a personal challenge. You want a physical ordeal more difficult than Denali mountaineering? Carry 75 pounds of gear into a room full of smoke and falling timbers. You want a test of your self-confidence? Teach middle schoolers. Energized by multilayered, complicated puzzles? Help a multi-symptom elderly person navigate through their complex healthcare needs (or their TV remotes).
Those are just the more public examples of public service. Government workers keep space stations and weather satellites aloft. Entire regional systems are created and maintained by people with wide-ranging expertise that not only includes specific knowledge of a particular field—be it mental health, water quality control, waste management, transportation equipment—but also an understanding of important demographic information and trends. Services must be delivered when and where they are needed, sometimes anticipating such needs years in the future. That takes the kind of problem-solving tech workers are likely to embrace and at which they are likely to excel. And governments at all levels need websites, developers, programmers, and tech support.
Some may decide they’d like to ditch the digital world and go full-on analog. You can walk miles a day—and in the footsteps of two future presidents—plus John Prine, John Brown, and Walt Disney—as a U.S. Postal Service employee. Our parks offer workers time in nature or in solitude (fire lookout seems like an introvert’s dream). And the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish posted a conservation officer job whose duties include cuddling baby bears. A lot of people would prefer that to ping pong at lunchtime.
Government service isn’t for everyone, and it does no one any good for someone not very public-spirited to take such a job. But there are plenty of opportunities for a laid-off tech worker to find a place in public service. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees even launched a campaign to recruit for a half-a-million positions waiting to be filled (and, hey, how about that–you might even get union protections). Why not give it a try?
Until then, be sure to access your Unemployment Insurance benefits. It can be a little complicated, but luckily public service workers are available to walk you through the process.
This column was originally produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.