Experts Discuss How To 'Prepare' For A Layoff

Looking for a job is not easy in the current economic climate. Unemployment numbers are at their highest in decades. Money coach Alvin Hall is joined by columnist and human resource specialist Lily Garcia to discuss the best ways to prepare for a job transition, even if you're already employed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We just heard from Shiwana Permenter. She attended the recent summer youth job expo in Washington D.C. She already has a job, but she's looking for something better, something perhaps more secure. Many Americans find themselves in a similar situation. They may have a job now but they are worried about losing it, and why wouldn't they be? The recession has prompted hundreds of thousands of layoffs, and people who remain employed are anxious.

So what can you do to prepare yourself for what may or may not come without causing your current employer to feel anxious about you? We decided to ask our experts. Our regular contributor on matters of the economy and personal finance, Alvin Hall, is with us from our New York bureau. Also joining us here in Washington, D.C. is Lily Garcia.

She's a human resources specialist and an attorney and she writes the How to Deal column for the Washington Post and the washingtonpost.com. Welcome to both of you.

Ms. LILY GARCIA (Washington Post): Thank you.

ALVIN HALL: Good day, Michel.

MARTIN: Lily, I want to start with you. Is this something your readers are asking about - how to assess their options, look for other opportunities without jeopardizing the employment they already have?

Ms. GARCIA: Absolutely, Michel. There is widespread panic out there, and some of the best advice that I could give to your listeners is not to panic, to realize that this could be a bump in the longer road of their long-term career and that they really should be true to themselves, to remain honest to the reasons why they are in their current employment and what their hopes and dreams and their goals are.

So before they make any false moves, they should really take a step back and take stock of their situation and not make the decision, the drastic decision, to leave their current employment necessarily just because they are concerned about what the short term might bring.

MARTIN: So people shouldn't be looking just to look?

Ms. GARCIA: It's okay to get on monster.com or on washingtonpostjobs and look around to see what's around there, but what I'm hearing from some of my readers is that they feel this irresistible impulse to jump ship. You know, they see that their co-workers are getting laid off. They see that their companies are scaling back on benefits for their employees, and they're really concerned about what the immediate term might hold. But they should really take a longer view. They should assess the important reasons why it is that they accepted those positions to begin with. They should look at the longer term health of their organizations, and they should assess on that basis whether it is that they should stay or they should go.

MARTIN: Alvin, what about you? What's your take on this? And are there steps that - if you take Lily's advice and you try not to do something precipitous or make a fear-based decision about looking for employment, are their still some steps you should be taking with your home budget to better position yourself.

HALL: Yes, I think that people need to realize that looking for a job is a really a longer term process than it's been in the past. And you do run the risk, which happened to a friend of mine in D.C recently, that if your employer finds out you are looking for a job, they may just decide to put you on the layoff list earlier than they thought. So you need to make sure that you're living frugally and that you have everything cut down to the basics during this job search period. I like to tell people - and I agree with Ms. Garcia about this - that it is a long-term process and that you may have to take jobs that are steps along the way.

The lady featured in the interview talked about finding her dream job. Few of us find our dream job after one or two; it's a longer term build, and that's what people need to see. And when you look at what you want to achieve, you need to probably break it down into a series of skills sets. I need better communication skills. I need much more people skills. I need much more sales skills. And take jobs that will build up all of those aspects of your career, although they may not at first seem as if they're in a single direction.

MARTIN: Do you revisit some of the normal financial advice that you give people at a time like this? I mean you normally advice people to max out their contribution to their 401k)s, to pay more than the minimum on their credit cards. Do you adjust that advice in these times, to preserve cash, for example? What do you say?

HALL: Yes. I tell people if you're making your contribution to your 401(k) programs, you may want to reduce it to the minimum amount that your employer is matching and not go over that amount during this period, because you need to have a cash cushion. If you're carrying credit card debt, you need to consolidate that debt onto one credit card or loan with the lowest interest rate, so you don't have all of these obligations going out while you're looking for a job. And also you need to avoid that horrible temptation of assuming that your next job is going to be better paying. If you're looking for more job security, chances are it's going to be lateral move or maybe a step down. And don't start spending money before you have that new salary.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Alvin Hall, our regular contributor on matters of the economy and personal finance, and Lily Garcia - she's an HR specialist and an attorney - about looking for work when you're already employed or positioning yourself in these difficult economic times. Lily, we have this question from one of our listeners, Brian. He writes: Everybody hiring in my field is looking for experience, but how do you get experience when nobody will give you a job?

I think the real question is, you know - how do I get experience at a time like this? I don't know what his field is, by the way, so I think that the answer may depend on what it is. But…

Ms. GARCIA: Absolutely, Michel. It does heavily depend upon the field and the industry. But two answers I think that would be helpful to readers across the board would be to look at volunteer opportunities in your community. Often time, nonprofits are looking for professionals with particular skill sets and they, unlike paying employers, are willing to give you a chance to prove yourself to them, that you might not get from other entities.

And you should also look at perhaps taking a position that might not necessarily be at the level that you would ordinarily expect. If you - if you want to gain experience at a particular field, you might be able to get in as an entry level staff member rather than as a manager or senior staff member. So those are two options for you to consider.

MARTIN: And again, those are the kind, that's the kind of advice that normally people weren't getting, people were normally saying you shouldn't take a step back, that's a red flag on your resume. You're saying in these difficult times…

Ms. GARCIA: It…

MARTIN: I mean don't you think that someone would raise questions about a person who had perhaps been a manager at Circuit City and then is working at Starbucks as a barista?

MARTIN: Well, if your true calling and passion is to be a barista at Starbucks, or to ultimately be a Starbucks manager, it might make sense to you to take a step back and become a barista. So like Alvin was saying, take the long view. You take incremental steps toward the place that you want to be in your life and in your career. And it may not make immediate sense to you, what you're doing, but if you look at it as a series of steps or a series of building blocks toward where you want to be, the picture starts to make sense.

And there's nothing that you can't explain in a cover letter or an interview, you know, and…

MARTIN: But what about just the fact that people - we had a group of young people who had difficulty finding employment. They were recent college graduates who had difficulty finding employment in their field. And I must say, a lot of our listeners were not sympathetic. They say, you listen, you just need to go get a job, any job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But does an employer really want to hear that? If you show up at his or her door and you say, look, I just need a job, I really just - I'll do anything. Is that an attractive message?

Ms. GARCIA: It's not attractive to be desperate. It really isn't. No matter how desperate you feel in your heart of hearts, you need to find a way to market yourself as a confident and competent professional who has value to offer to the organization.

So even if you're applying for that receptionist or junior staffer position, you need to find a way to present yourself to the employer in a way that makes it seem like you are going to do this job like it is the most important job in that organization.

HALL: Michel…

MARTIN: Go ahead, Alvin.

HALL: Yeah, I sort of agree with this, and I also think that people need to consider temp jobs. Among the friends I have who are looking for jobs who don't have jobs, a lot of them recently have taken temp jobs, and some of them have actually led to permanent employment.

And they started out in jobs that were quite removed from what they wanted. One started out as a receptionist. One started out in the mail room. But the company saw that the person was determined, had other skills, could write surprisingly well, answer the phone with such professionalism, that they were moved up into a better position because they were able to see that in a job, they held on to their pride and self-worth.

And I agree with Ms. Garcia so much in this. You have to come to the job with your self-worth and with your goals in mind, and it's your opportunity. It's your moment on the stage of that employer in order to prove to them that you have skills that they may not have seen.

MARTIN: Some people are - seem to be thinking about self-employment now in a way that they had not been before. Here's a clip that we have from a listener named Sam. Here's what he had to say.

SAM (Caller): I'm about to be in transition of a job, leaving a community job, going back to my restaurant and catering background to try to build a business. It would be nice if we had help with the stimulus package.

For us, you know, to be able to do this, there's going to be a lot of hard work (unintelligible) wonderful venture that will take me into retirement.

MARTIN: Alvin, what about this?

HALL: That conversation just gave me chills. First of all, this person is talking about a stimulus package, which tells me automatically they don't have enough money to make this dream come true. People are not going to give you money to invest in your business unless you have money in your business. That old adage - it's easier to lost other people's money than it is to lose yours…

MARTIN: So they want to see that you have skin in the game.

HALL: Exactly, and this person clearly does not. I think people forget that self-employment is a hard road. You have to be everything to yourself. You have to be the bookkeeper, the accountant, the marketing professional, and you're probably going to work three or four times as hard as you would working for somebody else.

And you need that safety net. So without that safety net there, you're just increasing the chances that you're going to end up back out there looking for a job much more quickly than you think, and even worse, you might be angry, bitter and hostile, and all of that could telescoped in an upcoming interview.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing that concerns me here is, is there a business plan?

HALL: There is no business plan.

MARTIN: Is there a business plan? Is there a sense that the market really supports this particular kind of venture right now, because everything you hear is that people are not eating out as much, they are eating at home, they are staying close to home and that a lot of businesses are suffering, so…

HALL: This business would not probably survive. Restaurants are one of the most difficult businesses to maintain. Catering is also. This person does not have a business plan.

But you know, even - I think you can start a business sometimes, if it's a small business, without a business plan, if you though it through six months or nine months down the road and you have a cash cushion. I don't think this person has thought it through that much. I think it's knee-jerk reaction, saying I've done this in the past. It was okay. I'm going to do it now.

And then to say, oh, I hope this is going to carry me to retirement - dream on.

MARTIN: Oh dear. Well, Lily, a final thought from you about what are the main concerns that readers are presenting you with now, and what's your best advice for people are just nervous right now?

Ms. GARCIA: The main concerns that I'm hearing fall squarely into the category of what if I lose my job, or now that I've lost my job, oh, what do I do? That would account for probably 80 or 90 percent of the questions that I'm hearing from my readers.

And two important words of advice for your listeners and for my readers would be first to stay in touch with their network and their community and develop that. Now more than ever, that's important.

You and Alvin were discussing the wisdom of starting your own business during a time like this. Some of my readers are finding that they have no choice but to market themselves as a small business when they've lost their jobs.

They're looking for consulting work or for temp work, and if they've done a good job of staying in touch with their community and with their network while they have employment, they're finding that it is much easier to make a soft landing in that regard.

My second word of advice would be to be patient, to identify the helpful behaviors that are going to get you where you want to be in your career and in your job search and engage in these behaviors every day, knowing that they will eventually take root.

You're not going to see immediate results. It is very tough out there, and you know, you can send out hundreds of resumes and not get any results, but if you are targeted in your job search and you know what you are looking for and you've done the hard work of reflecting upon your life and upon your goals and your objectives, then you're going to be more focused and efficient.

It is a numbers game, but you need to be very efficient in the way that you engage in the game.

MARTIN: And Alvin, final thought from you, particularly to the point of what we hear some people talking about, which is I want to move into something more stable. What's your best advice here?

HALL: Look for a company that clearly is in one of the areas that consumers will need. Expect that your job in this type of economy may be more narrow because the way that companies like this survive, they tend to define their jobs very carefully. And don't expect you're going to see the phenomenal pay increases that you've seen in you past job.

Generally, these industries that survive will pay you a steady income, and you will have job security, but you won't have that phenomenal, you know, cocktail party raise that you can talk about.

MARTIN: Alvin Hall is our regular contributor on matters of the economy and personal finance. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Lily Garcia is a human resources specialist and an attorney. She writes the How to Deal column for the Washington Post and the Washington Post.com. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Alvin, Lily, thank you both so much.

Ms. GARCIA: Thank you, Michel.

HALL: You're welcome.

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