Planning Ahead Can Boost Your Chances of Keeping, Finding a Job
By SARAH E. NEEDLEMAN January 29, 2008; WSJ. Page B6
Recession fears are causing more than just stock-market jitters this winter. They're also shaking some workers' confidence in their ability to continue earning a paycheck.
In December, overall worker confidence reached the lowest level recorded in 2007, according to a monthly report from Spherion Corp., a recruiting and staffing company. Roughly 2,800 workers were surveyed on their confidence in their personal employment situation and the broader employment environment.
Past economic downturns have led to layoffs throughout corporate America and, at least temporarily, a tighter labor market. But some industries tend to be more vulnerable than others when the economy is in a slump.
Even if there isn't an official recession, a number of areas are already seeing layoffs and hiring freezes. Industries affected by the recent mortgage crisis and home-building downturn, such as real estate, construction, banking and law, are among the hardest hit so far, say recruiters.
Some employers in struggling industries manage to do better than their peers during downturns, says Dale Winston, chairwoman and chief executive of Battalia Winston International, an executive-search firm in New York. She cites Goldman Sachs as a current example. "There are certain companies that are counter to their cycles and making a fortune because they're shorting the market," she says. "Even in the midst of the [1920s] there were people making money." But those were the exceptions.
While jobs in housing-related industries may be at most risk, a recession could reverberate to other parts of the labor market. Consumer-products manufacturers and retailers are usually the hardest hit in a downturn, along with travel and hospitality businesses, says Ms. Winston. Shoppers tend to cut back on their discretionary spending when finances are tight, she explains, and homeowners are currently grappling with high energy prices and mortgage payments. "People only have so many dollars to spread around," she says.
In contrast, hiring generally remains robust during a recession in industries that serve consumers' critical needs such as health care and energy, notes Ms. Winston. "We have an aging population in the U.S.," she says. Plus, she adds, "nobody's going to stop driving their cars or lighting their homes."
Employers in what recruiter Chris Morgan calls "sin and comfort" industries, such as alcohol makers and distributors, gambling institutions and cigarette manufacturers, also tend to fare well during economic slumps. In addition, wealth-management firms stay in favor as people often become more protective of their finances, says Mr. Morgan, managing partner and founder of Lantern Partners, an executive-search firm in Chicago.
The hiring outlook varies for industries that aren't characteristically durable or weak in a recession. Eighty-two percent of 1,400 chief information officers and 86% of 1,400 chief financial officers polled last month in separate surveys by Robert Half International said they foresaw no change in their staffing activity for the first quarter of 2008.
For people working in the industries that are most likely to be hit with economic woes, some strategic planning can boost the odds that they will stay employed or find new work, say career experts.
Here are some strategies for recession-proofing your career.
Stick around. If you work for a company in distress, your first instinct may be to jump ship. But if your new employer later decides to lay off workers, you'll likely be most at risk of getting a pink slip, warns Ms. Winston. In many cases, "it's last in, first out," she notes.
Be a good sport. Following layoffs, you may be asked to take on additional work that was part of a former employee's responsibilities. This may involve handling tasks that you dislike or are overqualified for. But expressing dismay could put your employment at risk should there be more layoffs, cautions Gary Rich, president of Rich Leadership, an executive-advisory firm in Pound Ridge, N.Y. Displaying a positive attitude is more likely to pay off in the long run. "Companies remember those who helped them out through a tough time," he says.
Haven't been asked to take on extra projects? Volunteer to help, advises Mr. Rich. You'll demonstrate that you're a team player committed to the company's success.
Work harder. Act the way you did when you were gunning for a promotion, says Lantern's Mr. Morgan. "Companies are less likely to get rid of star performers."
Work smarter. Look for ways to help your employer overcome the specific challenges it faces most in a recession, advises Mr. Morgan. "Think about your company's situation in the same fashion that your boss is thinking about it," he says. "You can be more useful by identifying ways to reduce costs, increase revenue or reposition a product or service."
Dust off your résumé. Prepare for the worst ahead of time by making sure your résumé is up to date, urges Shawn Graham, author of "Courting Your Career: Match Yourself With the Perfect Job" (Jist Publishing, 2007). If you rush to get it done following a sudden dismissal, the odds of making a typographical error or omitting important details will increase.
Network now. Don't wait until you need help finding a job, says Debra Feldman, a job-search consultant in Greenwich, Conn. Make a special effort to reconnect in a meaningful way with past bosses, former colleagues, academic advisers and other potential advocates. Reaching out to them only in times of distress can be a turnoff, she says. Also, make sure to offer yourself as a resource to your contacts as well. The gesture will provide an incentive for them to reciprocate.
Take a pay cut. If layoffs are rampant at your company, consider offering to accept a temporary salary reduction, suggests Mr. Morgan, who speaks from experience. During the dot-com bust in 2001, he voluntarily agreed to an 18% decrease in his base pay at a search firm specializing in technology recruiting. "I was the last one left," he recalls. The ploy helped him prolong his time at the beleaguered company while he began hunting for a new position, which he landed about six months later, he says.
Search internally. If you see a layoff coming in your division or department, it may be easier to search for another position at your firm because you've already proved yourself, says Mr. Graham. For example, if you work in media relations, you may qualify for a sales role because of your experience selling story ideas to news outlets, he says. Be sure to network with colleagues who work in those areas to learn about job openings before they're advertised publicly and to see if you can secure a referral, he adds.