Are Qualcomm Layoffs a Disaster for San Diego—or an Opportunity?

Opinion

After years of strong corporate and financial growth, the pace of change in the wireless industry has forced a massive global layoff at San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM. If the wireless giant had only 1,000 employees, a layoff of 150 folks would not be big news. But with a worldwide payroll of 31,000, and a planned layoff of up to 4,700 people, the implications of this downsizing has San Diego concerned.

Leaving a company where you have worked for years is hard. It can happen many ways. It can be a personal decision, where one’s personal goals and a company’s direction no longer align, and leaving is the way to go. Or it can be where a company’s goals and organizational structure must be realigned to respond to changing business realities.

On a personal level, leaving a company, either voluntarily or laid off, sucks. I’ve been on both sides of the equation many times: laid off, having to lay off folks, or making a tough personal choice to depart a company. I spent almost 14 years at Qualcomm, from 1994 through 2008, and leaving Qualcomm is about as hard as it gets. Over the years, deep personal and professional relationships are built, all with the shared purpose of changing the world though advancing wireless. And as employees and the community know, Qualcomm has a unique culture, high energy, built on “doing your homework,” and by treating and compensating employees extremely well.

So does that mean that potentially thousands of layoffs by Qualcomm in San Diego represent a disaster? I don’t think so.

Even though this will be very hard for those laid off and their families, it could end up being a watershed moment on a community level. Thousands of highly skilled employees across a broad range of disciplines are going to re-enter the job market.  Most are early or mid-career. Many have advanced degrees, amazing global contacts, and have been trained and mentored by world-leading technologists. And most importantly, many will not want to leave San Diego.

So what’s going to happen?

These people are going to leave Qualcomm, be appropriately grumpy for weeks or months, or perhaps take well-deserved vacations, and then they are going to get back to work.

They are going to fill much-needed technical and business slots at other established companies in town, not only in wireless, but in application development, Internet of Things, and even find their way into San Diego’s exploding life sciences and genomics sectors. They are going to take “that idea they had” and start banding together, and found new companies in town. They are not done yet.

Thirty plus years ago, there was a fiftyish year old guy who built a company in San Diego doing some really high-tech stuff, mainly for satellites. He sold his company to a defense contractor back East, and over time became increasingly disenchanted with the direction the new owner was taking the company. He did not want to leave San Diego, but he left the combined company where he had been working for some time. In his own words, “I stayed on … until April 1, 1985 when some…management changes made it less interesting.” But he was not done either.

That was Irwin Jacobs.  Here’s an interesting “what if:”

What if the company where he was working had made it really comfortable for Irwin and his team to stay where they were, doing work for a Massachusetts company that still exists today, albeit with 900+ employees world wide, and a market capitalization 1/60th of Qualcomm’s? What if Irwin and the team that helped start Qualcomm had stayed put, collected nice salaries and benefits, and had retired to the beach or bike paths ten or fifteen years later?

Would San Diego have ended up being arguably the wireless capital of the world?  Would UC San Diego and its engineering school (aided by hundreds of millions of dollars from Joan and Irwin Jacobs) be racheting up the list of the world’s top universities?  Here’s a time-worn link to the list of companies that can be traced back to Irwin Jacob’s first company. As a Qualcomm alumni, it’s clear to me that there are dozens more companies that keep on being founded, nurtured, funded, and grown by current Qualcomm alumni—a process that will only accelerate in the months and years to come.

Will another Qualcomm come out of this process?

I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t really matter—as long as the San Diego wireless community continues to coalesce, drive innovation, and find ways of integrating this amazing new pool of talent. That means all of us—the trade groups (EvoNexus, BioCom, San Diego Venture Group, and others), local universities, and others, need to reach out to these folks and put them to work as volunteers, mentors, and budding entrepreneurs.

And Qualcomm, I’ve got challenge for you!   You have established venture funds in China, South Korea, and elsewhere around the world, that target digital health and other specialized fields of innovation. How about establishing a fund that targets innovation in San Diego?

As for my former colleagues at Qualcomm, I just want to say, it’s going to be OK!

Jeffrey Belk was at Qualcomm for almost 14 years, in positions including senior vice president global marketing, and senior vice president, strategy and market development. He serves on the boards of the Wireless Life Sciences Alliance, the UCSD Alumni Association, and the EvoNexus advisory board. He is founder and chairman of Velocity Growth, and has invested several other local companies. Follow @

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