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Former techies reboot careers

Industry downturn reshapes 'eCoast'

Jacqueline Russ of Portsmouth has seen both boom and bust with the high-tech industry in New Hampshire. Russ was chief financial officer of Newmarket International, a Portsmouth-based provider of sales automation for the hospitality industry, for eight years. In 1999, she joined MicroArts in Greenland, a fast-growing advertising agency with high-tech clients. Then, both firms began to trim staff.

In one year, from 2001 to 2002, the state lost 6,400 high-tech jobs, or 11 percent of the total workforce, according to a new report from the N.H. Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

"For a couple years, everyone looked at things with rosy glasses, with no end in sight," Russ said. "Because we were on the cutting edge of technology, everyone wanted to be part of it. What was really amazing to me was how quickly things went away. We probably lost half of our clients in three months from March to May of 2002."

In fall 2002, Russ became chief operating officer for a decidedly low-tech business, Sheds USA. This Portsmouth-based company is a major supplier and installer of prefab sheds for Home Depot and others. In the past year she has recruited former high-tech workers to join her company.

Of her career change, Russ said, "At first, I had a hard time reconciling that. I'd come from the very sexy high-tech world. But I love the

job. We're a rapidly growing company with a lot of problems that need to be resolved. There's the same energy you would find in a start-up environment. We build 500 to 600 sheds a week, and it's my first time in a retail environment." Joseph Hall, 27, of Dover was a senior programmer at several high-tech firms until 2001, when he saw the downturn coming. He decided to turn his love of food into a career. He began researching options on the Internet, where he found Dover's McIntosh College and its Atlantic Culinary Academy.

"The Internet thing was not panning out," said Hall, who is working on an associate's degree in culinary arts. "With the tech field, you can literally study for a lifetime and still not get it all. I'm finding that to be true with food. And, there's something much more exciting about whipping up a curry than whipping up a webpage." Russ and Hall are among many high-tech workers who are pursuing markedly different professions amid the downsizing and exodus of high-tech firms. Other former high-tech workers run start-ups or consultancies. Few have left the area.

Only four years ago, a technology business roundtable dubbed New Hampshire's seacoast the "eCoast." Since 1999, however, New Hampshire has slipped from first in the nation to a tie for third as the state with the highest per capita concentration of high-tech workers.

High-tech manufacturer Tyco Telecommunications laid off more than 1,000 workers in Exeter and Newington. A downsized Bowstreet, once a Portsmouth high-tech anchor, moved to Massachusetts in January. Also this year, Enterasys Networks relocated its headquarters to Massachusetts.

Even the term eCoast is undergoing a transition, as the roundtable recently expanded its definition to include biotech and entrepreneurial businesses to attract new members.

Most high-tech workers have remained in New Hampshire because of living conditions and costs that are lower than in the Greater Boston and Silicon Valley high-tech areas, said Ross Gittell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business and vice president of the New England Economic Project.

"The quality of life keeps them here," said Gittell. "The unemployment rate in New Hampshire is well below the national average. They're tightening their financial belts to ride out the recession. People are committed to the area and committed to the sector. They realize there are larger issues related to the business cycle."

Gittell said he is most concerned about high-tech contract manufacturing jobs. "Most of those aren't coming back," he said, alluding to lower-cost foreign manufacturers. Gittell is more optimistic about other high-tech businesses, citing a new study by the New England Economic Project. The study predicts the New Hampshire economy will grow at a slightly higher rate than the national average.

For Steve Wrenn of Portsmouth, the downturn afforded a break from the intense environment. "I saw this as a good breather. I took a couple years to give me a chance to re-charge," said Wrenn, who became an adjunct professor with the executive MBA program at UNH. "I'd been working nonstop for 20 years."

Wrenn served as vice president of customer service for Cisco Systems and Enterasys. These days, Wrenn uses his technology to assist his employer, Liberty Mutual in Portsmouth, and at UNH. He also serves as chairman of the eCoast Business Roundtable.

"Before technology was kind of an end-all," said Wrenn. "Now businesses realize technology is an enabler for business. Technology should contribute to society rather than just be a way to make a lot of money."

Greg Hopkins spent 20 years founding high-tech businesses on the West Coast and in Greater Boston before moving to New Hampshire last year to start a boat company. Hopkins had built boats as a hobby, but wanted a different kind of hands-on start-up.

Nextwave Boat Co. is anchored in a rented Portsmouth barn. Hopkins is creating an environmentally friendly pleasure boat that offers better maneuverability than traditional boats, better aesthetics than pontoons, and better economy through a hybrid battery, fuel cell, and solar energy source. Powered by an electric motor, the boat can run for eight hours. Its maximum speed is 8 knots. A test launch of the 20-foot prototype is planned soon for potential investors and buyers.

"I was getting tired of high-tech," said Hopkins. "And I wanted to be close to the water."

Hopkins is as fervent as any high-tech executive, complete with a Power Point handout on his new venture. "There's no gasoline, and it's absolutely quiet," said Hopkins. "You can go all day for 50 cents." Hopkins sees a market for it in regions where there is concern about water pollutants.

He has poured his life savings into his new venture, building a living space for himself within the circa-1800 barn. Here, his old and new lives intertwine, as a high-definition plasma screen and computer gadgetry take center stage in rustic living quarters.

Said Hopkins, "You can take out some of the high tech, but not all."

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