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by Debbie Burke | March 31, 2009


For those who have been handed pink slips (or have a gut feeling that they'll be getting one shortly), it's stressful not knowing how long job hunting will take and how bills will be paid in the meantime. We all know that we should bank about six months' salary for emergencies, but is this goal realistic for those of us planted firmly in the middle class?

It wasn't for us, when my husband lost his job as a personnel assistant in city government. We had just returned from our honeymoon and -- here comes the textbook definition of cruel -- my husband's boss told him on his first day back that he was fired. After hearing friends' horror stories, I can't say our experience rates at the bottom (or top) of the Miserable Job Heap, but it was enough to put us both on a downward spiral of anger, disgust and inertia.

It took him two months of nine-to-five job hunting to get another job. We managed to survive on the income from my temping -- my freelance business was just getting off the ground -- and funds we had in reserve. We got through the dry period by canceling cable, staying home instead of going out to the movies or dinner, and postponing the purchase of a second vehicle -- to say nothing of discussions about having a family! At the time, the glaring gap on my husband's resume was as pretty as a supermodel missing a front tooth. Fortunately, in the intervening years, he's amassed enough experience to gloss over it, so all that's left is a good anecdote about a bad situation.

Still, I was rattled enough to think about what we should do if signs point again to employer belt tightening. Perhaps our experience and the discussions we've had can help those who may embark on the same journey.

To start, there are more avenues available for finding jobs than we thought at first glance. When you're jobless, they're invaluable. When you still have a job, they help prepare you for the day you're asked to leave. For example, we found that my husband's professional organization was a fount of opportunity. A similar association (or two) exists for just about every job under the sun, and you should join yours. Once you're a member, read its e-mail bulletins and newsletters regularly. If and when you're jobless, you may be able to place a "situation-wanted" ad in a bulletin, using a post-office box for replies if confidentiality is an issue. Plan to attend the group's meetings as well. While it isn't likely that the first person you clink glasses with at the annual dinner will offer you a job, persistence can pay off. Send a friendly e-mail to your new contacts (remember, networking is a good thing) and to the organization's officers, saying you're in the market for a new job. You'll also maximize your exposure by volunteering on a committee.

Teaching also lets others know you're available. No teaching degree, you say? For adult and continuing education, it isn't necessary. Community colleges are always hungry for people who can offer a new take on popular subjects: how to surf the Net (especially for seniors who have had little exposure to computers); business writing for teens (you get enough bad memos, why not teach others before they're indoctrinated into the world of bad writing?). Demonstrate your hobby: fly-fishing tips for beginners; scrap-booking for stay-at-home moms; turning doodles into caricatures.

Everybody's an expert in something, or can be with a little practice. Community colleges will likely accommodate your schedule so you can teach after work or on Saturday mornings. This will give you additional resume credentials, pocket change and perhaps more importantly, an opportunity to know and network with people you might not meet otherwise (other teachers, administrators, students).

Sometimes losing your job leads to introspection -- and volunteer work. My husband has always wanted to be involved in conservation issues, so he's volunteered to serve on a local planning committee. There's no dearth of causes that need your talents: a county arts council board, nonprofit fundraisers that support foster homes or fire victims, and so on. This isn't a waste of time; rubbing shoulders with corporate sponsors and other volunteers might lead to undiscovered opportunities. You also may gain a sense of meaning that's lacking in your day job. You may be so excited that you decide to change careers.

When job hunting, you'll need strong investigation skills. Start by identifying companies you want to work for and pitch them thoroughly without being harassing. Research the organizations to learn if your abilities can be applied to more than one department. Arrange for an informational interview. Be friendly, not desperate, and be ready to convey why you'd do well and would add to a department. An opening in your desired line of work probably won't be immediately available, but you will at least have put your name in the hat. The key is to follow up every month with new information. For instance, send a note to say you just completed a master's degree, or read about the company's new product line and wondered if new marketers would be added to handle these products.

If your company manages to stay afloat, you may want to stay where you are. If just your department or job is at risk, do some digging to find out how your talents can be applied in another area. This works if you have a reputation for being flexible and dependable. By listing everything you do during the week, you may see that your role isn't just counting beans or creating job descriptions. Perhaps you also help employees resolve problems, which might qualify you for an employee-assistance program position. By proofreading brochures, you may have learned a lot about graphic design. In supplying information for the annual compensation study, it's possible you learned how to create and maintain a database. You aren't likely to be a shoo-in for these spots, so plan to find out more about these "internal" opportunities.

It's not fun being powerless to the whims of your employer, the economy and a host of other invisible factors. You have to keep plugging with the knowledge that you'll get a pink slip once -- if not twice or more -- during your career. The Boy Scouts are right -- you must be prepared. Nothing is worth ruining your honeymoon over.

Ms. Burke is a free-lance writer and creative-writing teacher who resides in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Brooklyn College.


Filed Under: Job Search

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