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Recruiters and career coaches who survived the Great Recession share their most urgent advice for finding a job during a new economic downturn

christine cruzvergara
  • A global recession may be impending and millions of people may lose their jobs.
  • Getting laid off can bring unexpected benefits, like exploring new roles and industries you'd previously ignored.
  • Conducting a job search during an economic downturn doesn't have to feel demoralizing. Experts advise learning new skills that will make you more employable and networking strategically — which will come in handy even if you don't lose your job.
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Erica Keswin was an executive coach at New York University's Stern School of Business when the 2008 recession hit. Every day, a new batch of distraught NYU alumni would stream into the career-services office, having just been laid off and seeking guidance.
Some alums would come to her even before telling their family that they'd lost their job, Keswin told Business Insider. These professionals never expected to face a challenge like this one. After all, they were smart and accomplished, with Ivy League degrees and stints on Wall Street. Now, Keswin said, "they had to reinvent themselves."
Twelve years later, Americans may find themselves in a similar position.
Thanks largely to the novel coronavirus pandemic, economists believe the US economy is in recession, Business Insider's Carmen Reinicke reported. The human impact of the economic shift is unimaginable. Already, many businesses have shuttered and laid off their staff, from ride-share company Lyft to the billion-dollar fitness platform ClassPass. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment in the US in the past six weeks, according to Labor Department data.
Plenty of professionals are concerned about losing their job, or about never finding a job if they're just starting their career.
The anxiety is understandable. But experts say you can manage the situation by thinking about what you can learn to make yourself more marketable, or what Keswin calls "future-proofing" your career.
The ultimate goal is to stop stressing about the macroeconomic factors outside your control, and to start focusing on the stuff you can influence — like whether you network strategically or whether you spend your days wallowing in misery.
We asked career experts how to find stable employment in a recession. Here's their best advice.

Focus on what you can control

It's important to remember: You don't have much agency over the economy or the labor market. What you can control is how you spend your time and energy.
Christine Cruzvergara, vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake, a platform for college students to find jobs, tells job-seekers to start with tasks that have a "really low barrier to access" but can help you feel productive. For example, maybe you'll retool your profile on a jobs site.
Cruzvergara was three weeks into a previous job, manager of career programs at Georgetown University's career education center, when the 2008 recession happened. She would tell students and alumni that being able to check something off your to-do list can help you stay confident, instead of despondent. And that, in turn, can make you more appealing to potential employers when you come in for an interview.
"The employer wants to hire someone who's confident," she said. "Someone who can exude a can-do attitude, someone who knows their strengths and what they bring to the table."

Use this time to invest in yourself

Erica KeswinWhether you've been laid off or you're worried about that happening, you can use this opportunity to improve your professional skills.
Keswin led every NYU alumnus who approached her through the same exercise. First, go through every job you've held and write down your exact responsibilities plus the skills you used. Next, think about which of those skills might be highly relevant in another job.
Finally, think about another type of job you could reasonably apply for. Try to pinpoint the gap between your current skill set and the skills that would be necessary for that role.
From there, Keswin said, you should take full advantage of professional-development resources like online courses. The time and energy you spend will pay off. "It's an investment in yourself," she said.

Network strategically

Blair Decembrele linkedinYour professional network may be more willing than ever to help you.
Blair Heitmann, an in-house career expert at LinkedIn, said she's seen the LinkedIn community "coming together and people wanting to help each other." That's why, she said, "I really encourage people to lean into their community at a time like this." (Heitmann was in the workforce in 2008, at a different company.) Don't hesitate to message your professional contacts and ask for career advice.
It helps to develop a strategic plan for reaching out to contacts in your network, Keswin said. During a recession, everyone is worried about the same thing and scrambling to find people who might be able to help them. Keswin recommends making a list of specific industry organizations or alumni databases you can tap into.

Customize your job applications

Daniel Chait, CEO of the recruiting-software company Greenhouse, advised against the "spray-and-pray" approach, in which you send more or less the same application to hundreds of employers and hope that one of them gets back to you. That strategy rarely works anyway, but in a soft labor market, companies' application volumes are even higher. (Chait was also in the workforce in 2008, but was running another company. Greenhouse cut 28% of its workforce in April, Business Insider's Bani Sapra reported.)
Instead, you should pay "much more attention and care on focusing who you're applying to," Chait said. Think about how you're "tailoring your approach to them and making sure that you're the one who stands out," he said. What value can you offer the employer based on your unique background and professional skill set?

If you're laid off, ask for feedback

If you do lose your job in a recession, there's no shame in asking for an exit interview, Heitmann said. Another option is to ask your former manager and colleagues for some informal feedback on "how you could grow."
Heitmann reminds job-seekers: "Your professional network is your number one asset" in your career. Your former boss and coworkers may not have a new opportunity for you right away, but if you maintain those relationships, they may be able to help you down the line.

Keep in mind the potential silver lining

oliver rolfeLosing your job can be a difficult experience, both financially and emotionally. It can also bring some unexpected career benefits, said Oliver Rolfe, who was an equity research headhunter during the 2008 recession.
Rolfe, now CEO of the London-based executive-search firm Spartan International, recalled someone who was laid off from his job at JPMorgan. That person ended up finding a new job at a slightly less prestigious bank. Rolfe said that person was much more valuable than he would have been at JPMorgan during a recession, in terms of the amount of revenue he generated based on his contacts and technical know-how.
"Some people have found it easier to trade at smaller houses than in large tier-one banks," Rolfe said, "where you are usually a small cog in a big machine."
A lesson here is that being forced to find new opportunities can mean you look beyond the same job functions, companies, or even industries that you've always looked at.
It may also prompt you to "reconsider your career path," Chait said. Many people wind up following a "predefined set of expectations," he added. They may think, for example, "People are going to look at me funny if I don't go from manager to senior manager to director in a certain amount of time." But during a recession, "a lot of those expectations are going to get thrown out the window." You may want to explore a different job or industry that you'd previously been hesitant to try.

Don't be choosy

Daniel Chait GreenhouseChait advises professionals who are out of work in a recession that "it's OK to make short-term decisions," like taking a job that doesn't seem like it will help you build your ideal career.
Don't feel bad, he said, if you need to put your long-term career goals on hold. In a recession, he added, "if you need a job and there's work that pays that's available to you, you should take it."

If you currently have a job, don't leave it

If you have a job but don't love it, you should think very carefully before leaving it during a recession.
Cruzvergara said quitting at this time is a "very personal decision" that depends on factors like your family dynamics and how robust your financial safety net is. If you assess the situation and realize that now isn't the opportune time to make a career transition, Cruzvergara recommends finding "opportunities for flexibility."
For example, maybe you can work on cultivating the skills you'll need for a new role or start relationships with people in the industry you're hoping to move into. (You'll want to make sure you're still performing well in your current role.)
Keswin put it simply: "It is much easier to get a job when you have a job." You'll look better to employers as, say, a consultant than as someone who's not working.
That said, if you're really miserable in your current role, Keswin recommends trying out a part-time schedule so you can look for new jobs and develop new skills on the days you're not working. "But more often than not," she said, "I strongly believe in sucking it up and staying put."

Have confidence in yourself

Whether you're laid off in a recession or your job is no longer necessary, at some point you may find yourself looking for a new position. Try not to take it as a reflection on your abilities. Rolfe said that when companies are looking to cut costs in an economic downturn, they may look at employees with relatively high salaries, since the companies may not be able to pay at that level in the next few years.
Remember that if you're a knowledgeable and hardworking professional, you'll probably find another role soon enough. Getting laid off, Rolfe said, "doesn't mean you're not good at your job."
SEE ALSO: Millions of Americans have been laid off or furloughed. Career experts break down 8 steps to take right now if you're worried you might be next.
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