I don't want this to turn into a RIM blog, the world already has enough disaster blogs. But, RIM just announced that they'll lay off 2,000 workers, out of a total workforce of 19,000. There is no word on what jobs are being eliminated — developer or lawyer — or where the lost jobs will be (have been?) located, but considering that the bulk of RIM's workforce is in Ontario, it is not a large leap to guess that many engineers and developers in Waterloo will get the axe. The question immediately turns to how these layoffs will affect the city of Waterloo. As I've said before, Waterloo isn't completely dependent on RIM in the way that Armonk is dependent on IBM, Redmond with Microsoft, or getting away from high tech, as Bentonville is with Walmart. It's not a one horse town, but it is a town that had a really big horse that pulled a lot of....economic development plows (I'm starting to regret this metaphor).
From my perspective, the concern isn't that if RIM declines, Waterloo becomes a new economy version of Hamilton, Ontario, a city who's primary industry (in Hamilton, that was the steel industry) left for greener pastures. Waterloo has a great deal of resilience, in both it's high tech and traditional industries. The main concern is making sure that the talented people who are laid off are able to stay in the region, by either getting new, local jobs or starting their own company. Waterloo's talent pool is deep, but talented people can swim to where ever they want. Most of the time, they don't because moving is pretty painful. But a lost job presents an opportunity to try out another city.
So, with that in mind, here are a few crazy ideas to try to keep the most talented people in the region, in the region.
- RIM should donate several thousand dollars for every employee laid off to Communitech, the local economic development agency. Communitech is going to be crucial for both re-skilling (it's a terrible word, but it's the only word that works) for entrepreneurship, or, if the stories about working at RIM are true, de-program them in the hopes of successful reintegration to society. This isn't a cure all, but OCRI in Ottawa did see some success during Nortel's collapse. The key is to remember that no everyone wants to build the next RIM. Some people just want to run a consulting firm that will pay a decent salary without sucking up all their time.
- Given RIM's difficulty in attracting app developers, it might not be a bad idea to try to convince laid off programmers or developers to become full or part time app developers. No one knows the ins and outs of the blackberry environment better than someone who has been diving in it for years. One would hope that RIM has been conducting market research that shows potential niche applications that have a sizeable potential market. Of course, selling $1 or $2 apps will not equal a RIM salary, but app production provides a nice way to bide your time and hack while living off what is hopefully a very big severance check.
- The idea of a Grave Dancer Fund is interesting, but I'm not sure I think it'll work. Then again, I'm a terrible investor, all my money is tied up in a 1.5% savings account because I think CDs are too risky an investment. The idea here is to create a venture fund that specifically targets people laid off from RIM: get in on a ground floor that's so low there's magma seeping in. However, these layoffs are happening soon, in the next 2 months soon. Is that really time for people to get over the shock of losing their jobs, find a product, start prototyping it, and do all the other things startups need to do? It has the potential to work, but it also has the potential to subsidize some very long post-job vacations.