Advantage Career Solutions
Richard Phillips, Career Counselor and Coach

A Career Coach’s Advice for Weathering The Recession

As a career coach during the first decade of the new millenium, I’ve helped clients weather three major recessions, of which the current one is by far the most severe.  Below is a summary of what I’ve learned about how to survive and eventually thrive during a downturn.

1. Hope for a short transition period, plan for a long one.
In a recession, it is impossible to predict how long a job search will last, therefore the only useful strategy is to hope for a short one, but plan for a long one.  Even if you don’t feel that you are in “survival” mode, immediately take an honest and detailed look at your resources and determine how long you can go before you’re in the kind of financial trouble that would be difficult to recover from without drastic measures.  What can you do now to reduce your outflow?  The temptation might be to continue your “fully employed” lifestyle, but the time to conserve money is before you’ve spent it.  As a career coach, I too often encounter situations that have become desperate because the individual didn’t address the financial realities of being out of work soon enough.  If you do cut back in anticipation of a long transition, but find work soon, you can always help the economy by going on a buying spree to celebrate with the money you’ve saved!

2. Don’t treat being out of work like a vacation!
After you get over the initial shock of being laid off, you may find that you enjoy not having to get up to go to work in the morning. Maybe while you had a job, you didn’t have the time to take a vacation, so you figure why not coast for a few weeks before looking for a job? Understandable, but dangerous because it is easy for a few weeks to grow into a few months.  Remember that a body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest can morph into a job search-avoiding couch potato without you being aware it’s happening. The right approach is to get your job search system up and running while you still have the momentum of established work habits.  Don’t think of yourself as having lost a job.  Think of yourself as having involuntarily found a new one – the job of finding a job.  Then allocate some “vacation” time within the structure of the job search “job.”

3. Expand your thinking beyond a traditional “job.” 
Think also in terms of contract and project work.  Recessions often follow a pattern where the amount of contract work decreases in the beginning of the downturn while companies try to preserve regular employees, but then increases as the recession continues. The reason is that in a downturn, there may not be enough work or funds to justify a full-time employee, but there still is some level of work that needs to be done.  Another reason is that hiring an employee is a much more restrictive process than hiring someone on contract.  Of course, most people would prefer to have employee status, but if that isn’t available, contracting may be a way to pay the bills at least until the economy loosens up again.  Hiring you as a contractor may also be a way for an employer to “try you out” to see how you fit before making a more firm commitment.  The same is true for you.  It can be a win-win situation if you’re prepared to be flexible with your expectations and to view being somewhat under-employed as a part-timer or contractor as better than being unemployed.

4. Plan your non-job search activities wisely.  If your period of unemployment stretches beyond several months (and it may well), how will you answer the question about what you were doing during the gap in employment?  Right answers include going to school to upgrade skills and knowledge and volunteering in career relevant activities.  Wrong answers include remodeling your house, visiting remote islands, reducing your golf handicap, etc.  You might still spend time doing these things, but they should not be your primary focus.  Going to school and volunteering also help with counteracting the feeling of being isolated, which is one of the hardest aspects of being out of work. 

5. Keep track of your daily activities, just as you would while working.  A job provides a built-in structure and mechanisms by which you account for tasks performed and results achieved.  Without these external structures, there can be a debilitating tendency to drift aimlessly.  Studies have shown that job seekers who keep a log of their daily activities get back to work much more quickly than those who don’t. I advise my clients to set daily and weekly job search goals and to check them off as they are completed.  Not only does setting and tracking goals provide some much needed structure, it provides a way to evaluate what activities are producing results and which might need modification.

6. Hang out with people who are optimistic and positive. During a recession, there is more than enough bad news to go around.  You can’t avoid seeing or hearing it entirely, but don’t spend your time with people who take a perverse pleasure in reinforcing doom and gloom scenarios.  As the Greek philosopher Epictitus wrote "People are disturbed, not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen." In a downturn, lots of factors are out of our control, but we are 100% in control of our own attitudes and opinions.  Because attitude so often determines the actions we take, it is critically important to choose a positive attitude.  I also recommend reading about individuals and groups of people who have made it through tough times because we need inspiration as well as information during a job search.  One book I’ve read several times is Adrift by Steven Callahan, who spent 76 days on a flimsy rubber raft trying to stay alive while the currents carried him across the Atlantic Ocean after his sailboat sank.  If you think your situation is tough, his story will give you a new standard of comparison!

7. Get help before it’s obvious you need it. As soon as you know you are in a job search mode, take a proactive approach.  Get professional input on your goals, strategy and implementation plan. It is far easier to prevent a mistake in the beginning than to recover from one later on.  I often see clients who have needlessly wasted precious time and made their situation worse because they didn’t seek help soon enough. “Going it alone” limits you to what you know, while getting help can open you up to a much wider range of insight, information and advice.
One place this seems to happen a lot is with creating a resume. A resume is a critically important element of your job search, but also a difficult document to create, especially under the pressure of needing to find a job.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been given a resume to review, immediately found several fatal errors and have then been told that the job seeker whose resume it is has been using it for months without any results at all.  Sadly, an investment of some time and a relatively small amount of money would have prevented those wasted months.

8. Finally, don’t give up your job search even though you seem to be getting little or no results.  It is impossible to predict when the economy will turn around and when hiring will pick up. Usually the economy starts to get better slowly, without a lot of fanfare.  If you are actively job searcing when hiring begins to improve, you might be one of the first back to work - before the positive trend is generally apparent and “retired” job seekers come back into the market.  Remaining active could give you as much as a six month head start on your competition and that’s six months of personal financial recovery.  It’s like fishing.  If you aren’t fishing, you can be absolutely sure you will not catch a fish.  If you do go fishing, you might catch one.  Going from “absolutely not” to “might” may not seem like a big step, but it is because the part you control is when and how you “fish” for a new job.  The rest is up to the fish – I mean the employer!  If you keep fishing even when the fish aren’t biting, you will be ready and waiting when they do.
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