One morning last March, hundreds of employees came streaming out of Target Corp.’s towers on Nicollet Mall with boxes in hand in one of the largest — and most shocking — corporate downsizings Minnesota has ever seen.
A year later, those workers have discovered there is life after Target — and in many cases it’s much brighter than they imagined.
Nearly all have found jobs, a testament to the respect other employers have for Target, the robust job market in the Twin Cities, and the ability of white-collar workers to reinvent themselves.
A striking number, about 170, found themselves back at Target after the company realized it had cut too deep in certain areas. Another retail giant, Amazon.com in Seattle, hired scores. And so did UnitedHealth Group, the Minnetonka-based insurer that in October said it would hire 1,700 people in the Twin Cities by April.
“Frankly, I’m surprised how happy I am here,” said Nikki Shultz, who was hired by UnitedHealth’s Optum unit after being laid off from Target, where she’d spent more than a decade.
“A lot of people realized how much they enjoy working at a small company or working in a different industry or in a totally different job,” she said. “Those were things they would have never done unless they were pushed out of the nest.”
For decades, Target, one of Minnesota’s largest and best-known companies, grew by leaps and bounds. It regularly added legions of workers to its Minneapolis headquarters, then trained them to move up the ladder. But its growth slowed in recent years as it neared saturation in American suburbs and grappled with emerging online competitors.
When Brian Cornell arrived as chief executive in August 2014, he saw that layers of bureaucracy made Target slow to innovate and adapt to changes in the marketplace. The ax fell on 1,700 workers in one day last March, followed by several smaller layoffs. In total, Target cut about 2,600 Twin Cities jobs, about one-fifth of its corporate staff.
In addition to severance, Target paid outplacement firms to help the laid-off workers find new jobs. Among those who used that help, the average time to land a new job was 10 weeks. Four out of five stayed in Minnesota and three out of five left retail. About 44 percent changed roles, according to Target.
Several major retailers sent recruiters to the Twin Cities last spring after the Target layoff. None tried harder to get them than Amazon, which has been aggressively growing and had already hired dozens of Target workers.
One laid-off Target employee said he got several messages from Amazon on LinkedIn before he responded to the firm. Amazon hosted an event at the giant Surly’s brewpub in Minneapolis with free beer and food. “It was a madhouse,” said one laid-off Target worker who took a job at Amazon just two weeks later. “Anyone who had the Amazon shirt on had six people around him.”
An examination of LinkedIn by the Star Tribune found that about 90 Target headquarters employees took jobs at Amazon last year. Some of them had lost their Target jobs; others quit. In one case, Amazon hired about half of a 30-person strategy team who were all laid off from Target. In 2014, about 70 people left Target for Amazon.
So many former Target employees are now at Amazon that some do double-takes in the hallways. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize you were here. Welcome!’ ” said one Target-turned-Amazon employee who spoke on the condition his name not be used. “The tongue-in-cheek response is that the cold got to them after a while. You don’t want to wake up at 4 a.m. to shovel your driveway.”
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
But many laid-off Target workers have family roots and other connections in Minnesota, making relocation unattractive. One factor that helped some of them stay in the Twin Cities was Target’s decision, in many cases, to waive a policy of requiring that former employees wait two years before taking jobs with companies that directly do business with it.
Target did that for Brian Stanchfield, who ended up joining Jacobs Marketing, a retail broker that represents vendors selling products at Target.
“I still felt bullish on where Target is going,” said Stanchfield, whose wife works at Target. “I was disappointed to not be part of the next chapter. But I came to the realization that I can still be part of the Target ecosystem and to be part of it through this end of it.”
His new office is across the street from Target’s headquarters, and he still works with many of the same people.
Paul DeBettignies, a technology recruiter in the Twin Cities, said that in many cases, the ex-Target workers had to pitch themselves as nontraditional candidates since their retail background did not necessarily directly translate to other industries, such as banking and health care. Some also made trade-offs in accepting offers from smaller firms or start-ups.
“Target has traditionally paid their folks well and they have had good benefits,” DeBettignies said. “So some folks had to think about some cost-of-living adjustments because the salary they were being paid was not what the rest of the market was willing to bear.”
Teresa Daly, co-founder of Navigate Forward, one of the outplacement firms Target hired, initially wondered whether some of the company’s setbacks, such as the 2013 data breach and its money-losing foray in Canada, would make prospective employers hesitate to look at the laid-off workers. “We didn’t see that at all,” she said.
To the contrary, the Target workers seemed to land jobs faster than others she has worked with after major layoffs. “The Target pedigree is very good in the marketplace,” she added. “They are really sharp people and the market gobbled them up.”
In hindsight, some former Target workers admit they had become too complacent in their jobs and didn’t think enough about a Plan B until they were laid off.
“I had grown up there,” said Jon Koss, who worked at Target for about nine years. “I considered myself a poster child for Target. I look back on it and think I should not have been so naive.”
While he wasn’t initially sure what he wanted to do after losing his job, he found consulting, a field he had never before considered, to be a perfect fit. A friend put him in touch with Slalom, a boutique consulting firm with an office in the IDS Tower a block away from Target’s headquarters.
Coffees led to interviews and finally an offer. He began work there about three months later.
“Waking up the day after the layoffs, one of my biggest fears was I don’t know if I’ll find a place I loved as much as Target,” he said.
But he has. Slalom’s office is much smaller than Target, about 70 people, but it has the fun, collaborative environment he loved at Target. And he finds the work more fulfilling compared to Target, where he said ideas were often dissected to death in committees.
“It’s just very tangible here where I can see the direct results from my work,” said Koss, whose current client is St. Paul-based Ecolab.
Not everyone has had good luck. Kevin Khottavongsa was three months into a new job at Target when he was let go. A year later, he’s still looking for a permanent job while going to school part-time at Augsburg College working toward an MBA.
“I wish I could tell a better story, but I still haven’t landed anything solid yet,” said the 28-year-old from St. Paul.
Meanwhile, Target is in the midst of a hiring spree of its own, though it’s mostly for software engineers and other tech-oriented folks to help improve its online game. Company executives said last fall they wanted to hire 500 people for those jobs.
Target may continue to tweak its workforce with small reductions in certain areas, but executives have said the bulk of that part of the company’s transformation is behind it.