For the first time in my life, I am the one in my group of five friends who is still employed. Two thoughts run through my head. First, it makes me wonder if I have learned any lessons from my three bouts of unemployment due to downsizing, rightsizing, or political misalignment. Second, I wonder if I'm next. As I listen to my friends and look at my past, I realize there are some lessons we can all learn from one another.
Don't worry - prepare
I have kept a favorite cartoon taped to my refrigerator for years of Ziggy in a rocking chair with the caption, "Worrying is like rocking in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but doesn't get you anywhere." (A quote also attributed to Glenn Turner.) That makes sense, but how can you not worry? No one ever knows if or when his job will end, and we rarely get much warning when it does.
The best course of action is to plan now for the unexpected. For most of us, the biggest stressor about potential unemployment is worrying we won't have money to pay for our basic needs. Think now about how you could survive without your paycheck. Whether you are a single- or double-income household, you have to ask yourself the same questions. What would it take to maintain your current standard of living? And what are you willing to do without?
Almost all of us have lived through tough times, whether in college, when we first went out on our own, were newly wed, or when trying to buy our first home. And we all managed to survive. Try to remember what you did back then to stretch your dollars. In my last bout of unemployment, I survived on a quarter of my normal take-home pay while I went back to graduate school. How? First, I cut out all nonessentials. I gave up lawn care service, my fitness center membership, visits to the salon, cable TV. I reduced landline and cell phone add-ons, convenience foods, and eating out. I rode my bike and walked as much as I could to save on gas. I also attended all functions that had free food and took home leftovers when I could. (This makes me laugh now.) I had numerous yard sales and sold anything of value, including dishes and flatware.
Next, I took an inventory of all my possible resources. I was fortunate that I got a few months of pay and benefits as part of my severance package, and by eliminating unnecessary expenses I was able to stretch the money to last beyond a few months. I had a few shares of stock and a 401k, but only cashed in enough stock to pay my taxes. If worse had come to worst, I could have used the 401k, but I felt more comfortable knowing it was there than actually using the money.
Look at your benefits now
The next big worry is healthcare. Most employers offer a limited continuation of coverage through COBRA. (You can read more about COBRA at the Department of Labor website.) Length of coverage and costs vary, so check with your HR department. Usually, the only downside to this coverage is that premiums can cost up to 102 percent of what you were paying as an employee, but often this is less expensive than individual coverage. Before a crisis strikes, be aware of your benefits and what your company offers.
If your employer does not offer COBRA or your benefits have expired, you may find coverage through professional organizations. For example, ISPI offers health, life, and long-term care policies to their members. The key is to do research now while you are calm and not under a short timeline. Also, during these difficult economic times it is best to avoid letting your insurance coverage lapse. You have a limited time period to be without coverage before having to deal with claims being denied by future insurers for pre-existing conditions. Find someone you trust who knows about health insurance and know all of your options before you need them.
Take full advantage of the benefits you have with your current employer. Do not put off any treatments or preventive visits to your healthcare providers. Also, keep your prescriptions current and filled. Keeping your healthcare up-to-date will not only make you feel better now, but you will stand a better chance of not having an unexpected healthcare expense at the worst possible time - when you are unemployed.
Build your network
Now is the time to focus on building or strengthening your professional network. Make time to attend local meetings of ASTD and other professional groups that link to your career. If you are not on electronic networks such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter, take some time to create a profile. Recruiters have actually contacted me after seeing my profile on LinkedIn. It is much easier to set all of this up now while you aren't frantically trying to find another job.
Create a personal inventory
Make an effort to evaluate your knowledge, skills, and abilities. Build your personal competency inventory, assessing both your strengths and weaknesses. The hardest part of revising your resume is remembering your accomplishments, not to mention trying to capture or even remember measurements. Keep a running tally of your accomplishments in the back of your planner, or keep copies of your annual performance review worksheets. Being out of work can make you feel defeated, making it difficult to remember your successes. Why not keep track of them while you are at a high point?
Several years ago I started keeping a spreadsheet of projects and courses I have taken, developed, or delivered. This helps me track classroom hours and number of participants, as well as any other details about these events. If you are having trouble remembering everything you've done, talk to your mentors and professional colleagues. Sometimes it is easier to recall what others have done rather than your own accomplishments.
Keep your resume current
We have all been told over the years to edit resumes to the job we want. This makes some sense, but making constant revisions can be overwhelming. Here is where the inventory you created above will help. Take all of the information you gathered and type each item into a resume format. I like to call this my "inventory resume." The purpose of this document is to create a data dump. You can whittle this down during your editing process so that each time you need to edit your resume contents to showcase different events you just pick and choose the entries from your inventory resume. Your resume is your 8.5 x 11" calling card.
Know your employment market
The job market and recruiting techniques are constantly changing. With the pace things move you do not have the luxury to learn while you are out of work. Take time now to update yourself on the latest resume tools and techniques. There are new tools to create virtual resumes or even help you automatically distribute your resume. Do your research now. Research potential employers now to see what types of jobs are out there and what they are looking for. If you see potential gaps in your knowledge or experience then now is the time to take action to fill those gaps.
Create a Plan C
I heard a story on National Public Radio that I haven't been able to get out of my head. "Crafting a Plan B for Tough Economic Times," aired February 8, 2009, on Weekend Edition Sunday hosted by Liane Hansen. The story included interviews with people whose careers had been affected by the economy and what they are doing as their "Plan B." I have often joked by saying, "Well, I can always wait tables." According to this story, I'd better think again. Not only are those jobs not being filled by people being laid off, the economy has affected restaurants so that even they have had to reduce head count. "Wow," I thought, "This is serious. Now what am I going to do?" We have to have not only a Plan B but a Plan C, as well.
Before you find yourself unemployed you need to be very sure of what options you would consider. What companies would you consider working for? What types of jobs do you have experience in and could return to if all else failed? Review your personal inventory and see what other career fields you could consider. Before I became a training professional, I worked for years in quality control, so perhaps that is another avenue I could return to.
Many of my friends are having problems finding jobs because they can't relocate due to family commitments. Would you be able to relocate? If your answer is no, now is the time to begin building a list of potential employers in your area. Familiarize yourself with the businesses that are in growth modes or that have been least affected by the economy. Are there career possibilities that would allow you to telecommute? If you can't relocate, how much can you travel? Would you want to start your own business?
These are all questions you need to answer ahead of time so you know how and where to market yourself. If becoming self-employed is part of your long-range career plan or a consideration for Plan C, do the research now to determine if it is possible and what it would take in terms of paperwork and investments.
Fill gaps and retool
Once you have determined your next best career move or your Plans B and C, what skill gaps that you can fill now? What was the hardest thing you faced the last time you were looking for a job? Look at current job openings and see how you measure up to what employers are seeking. Or better yet, post a confidential resume (one that does not identify your name or current employer) to see how many views or hits you get. This can be an eye-opening experience. You can also see if your resume has the right key words or is written to appeal to your employment targets.
Many people, myself included, discovered our passion for training and development by accident. My biggest frustration and limitation when I tried to seek a training job was not having a degree in this field. (A bachelor's in microbiology doesn't exactly scream, "hire me as your T&D professional.") After my last downsizing, I realized it was time for me to go back to school. Getting my master's in workforce training and development was the best career decision I ever made. Not only did it help me fill skill gaps, it also provided fantastic validation for what I had learned on my own. Best of all, having this advanced degree on my resume increased hits on my resume and potential employers took me more seriously.
If a full-on graduate degree isn't for you, consider obtaining a certification. If you haven't been in the job market in the past five years, you might be surprised to see how many employers require or at least prefer some type of certification. You will see this not only on the ASTD Job Bank but also on other mainstream job sites, such as Monster.com. Take advantage of your current employer's continuing education and tuition reimbursement benefits while you have them!
Create a portfolio
A professional portfolio will help you stand out in a job search. Remember, you have to use work samples to which you have the rights and cannot take branded or proprietary documents from your current employer. That is not only wrong, it will send a negative message to potential employers that you can't be trusted with company documents.
Here is where continuing your education or pursuing a certification can accomplish two things at once. When I completed my master's from the University of Southern Mississippi, I had a lovely binder filled with work samples, including white papers, instructors' guides, participant guides, and an example of project management. Keeping these items all in one place makes sense, both to show future employers and for certifications. For instance, the ASTD CPLP certification requires submissions of your work that is critiqued as part of the process.
No one can predict the lifespan of any job, but we can take time now to prepare ourselves for the worst. Indeed, the best offense is a good defense. So take some time, take stock, and create your own career contingency plan!