ECONOMY: NEW REALITIES — Strangers in a strange land

More long-term employees are losing jobs. For many, it will mean the first job hunt in years, if not decades

WALLACE IMMEN

Globe and Mail, Globe Careers: Section C: February 11, 2009 by WALLACE IMMEN

In 25 years, Mario Thomas never had to actively search for a job. One always came to him.

At least once a month, Mr. Thomas found an executive recruiter at the other end of a phone, dangling an enticing new position. He bit five times over the years but never once did he have to seek out a potential employer, never mind write a résumé or cultivate a network.

How times have changed. No executive recruiters were calling, no résumé was ready and his network was largely untended when Mr. Thomas found out in December that Gestion T2C2/Bio Inc., the Montreal-based health sciences venture capital company at which he’s been vice-president since 2001, is going out of business – and that will soon put him out of a job.

Suddenly, at 58, he has found himself in an uncomfortably alien role: a job seeker with no clue about how or where to start looking.

“It was a shock of cold reality. I didn’t know that there was so much I didn’t know,” Mr. Thomas says.

He’s hardly alone. In these troubled times, long-time employees are becoming victims of job loss more than in any other recent downturn, says industrial psychologist Guy Beaudin, Toronto-based managing director of leadership development firm RHR International.

And for many long-term employees, a layoff notice will signal the first time they’ve had to face a job hunt in years, if not decades.

“Employers are looking for immediate cost cutting, and higher-salaried, long-tenured employees become tempting targets,” Mr. Beaudin says. A growing number of Mr. Beaudin’s clients are executives and managers who thought they were on the fast track to the corner office – and are shocked to instead find themselves on the unemployment lines, he says.

“The biggest challenge for these veteran employees is they didn’t plan to suddenly be on the outside looking in,” he says. “They were comfortable in their role and routine, and hadn’t thought about their options.”

Rusty at the job-hunting game, many long-term employees have not kept up their résumés, networks or skill sets and, as a result, have no idea what’s involved in putting themselves in front of potential employers again. That puts them at a disadvantage against young employees and recent job hoppers who have sharpened their job-hunting skills from recent experience, career experts say.

But even before they get to the nuts and bolts of a job search, the newly unemployed need to reassess their readiness to compete successfully in a competitive market.

How can they prepare to jump back in? Here are recommendations from the pros:

Stay in the right space

The shock of getting bumped from a job you had identified with requires a mourning period, Mr. Beaudin says.

“Spend a week to rail against the injustice, eat junk food, do whatever you find relieves the tension,” he suggests. But set a time limit of a couple of weeks at maximum and don’t wallow in self-pity, he says.

Treat the search as a job

A lot of people suddenly cut adrift think of their suddenly empty days as a vacation and don’t set goals and deadlines, says career coach Nina Spencer, president of Nina Spencer & Associates in Toronto. Wrong move. “Job hunting requires an honest day’s effort.”

Have a daily agenda of calls you want to make, research you need to accomplish and presentations to polish, and create a time line for your job hunt, Ms. Spencer advises.

Mr. Beaudin also recommends dressing in business clothes during workdays, rather than falling into the habit of wearing grubbies or a bathrobe. He also advises staying in the loop with former colleagues by inviting them to lunch or coffee so you still feel a part of the work community.

Update your image

Losing a long-held job can be similar to separating from a long marriage and having to get back into the dating game, Ms. Spencer says.

“Things like the extra pounds you put on over the years and the fact that you haven’t updated your wardrobe or hair style may not be important in a long-term job relationship, but if you want to impress a potential suitor it’s important to look healthy, enthusiastic and up with the trends,” she says.

“So brush up on contemporary looks and buy a new outfit, maybe hit the gym and try to trim down. Try to look as young and hot as possible,” she advises.

“Even if your potential employer isn’t looking for someone who is fashion-conscious, your self-confidence will be bolstered if you feel you look good, and it will help you stand out in the crowd,” she adds.

Be your own cheerleader

Block out messages of gloom and warnings of tough sledding ahead and instead focus on the fact that, even in the worst of economic times, most people are able to stay employed, Ms. Spencer advises.

“That sounds Pollyannaish, but looking for the bright side will keep you in the right frame of mind to plug away and recover.”

Give yourself regular pats on the back by going through your portfolio and reminding yourself of your past contributions and achievements.

Not only will self-congratulation give you a lift, but it will help you highlight what you bring to the table for a new employer, she says.

Learn new tricks

After a long run in a job, you are likely to find your expertise that was sound 10 years ago is no longer considered cutting-edge because you haven’t kept current with technology and professional development, Mr. Beaudin says.

Being between jobs is an excellent opportunity to take development courses or qualify for new professional accreditation.

In the process, you can network with other professionals and pick up on insights on potential opportunities, he says. And taking the effort to retrain will also send a message to potential employers that you are flexible and serious about your professional future, he adds.

Don’t stereotype yourself

“You may not realize the kind of tunnel vision a long time in the same job can set up,” says career coach Cassandra Gierden, principal of Prophet Coaching in Vancouver.

When you’ve identified so much with the job you just lost, the tendency is to think about going out and finding another one just like it.

But as the economy shrinks, opportunities in your field may be permanently reduced. So expand your horizon as much as possible.

“Sit down and list professions you have always been intrigued by, things you think you’d be good at, even if it is starting a dog-walking business or being a marketing consultant. Don’t limit yourself, because it might be the twenty-second thing you think of that might be your best choice,” Ms. Gierden says.

Obviously, you can’t go looking for 25 different options, so, after creating a broad list, narrow the field to about five possible professions to research for opportunities, she adds.

Consider an interim job

You might consider a short-term “survival job” to help pay the bills while you look for something you really want, Ms. Gierden says.

“That way you don’t have to leap into something just out of desperation. Having some money is better than no money. That will lift your self-confidence.”

See change as opportunity

The prospects of landing a new job may look bleak but this may actually be an opportunity in disguise, Mr. Beaudin says. “Being talented and available now can actually work to your advantage. It is a time when many organizations are going to be looking to upgrade their talent,” he says.

“In economic downturns, management decides that their current staff aren’t up to the task and are looking to shake things up. If they find high-potential people who are more in line with what they are hoping to accomplish, they may take you on board even if it means displacing someone who was in the role you are taking,” he says.

That’s backed up by a recent survey of 200 U.S. corporate recruiters by career site Jobfox.com that found 76 per cent of in-house recruiters said they are looking at the recession as an opportunity to bring in higher-quality talent to their organizations over the first half of this year.

Ask for help

Mr. Thomas decided he could not find out all the things he needed to do to get back on the job market on his own, so he sought out the advice of a career coach.

He got basic r̩sum̩ writing, presentation and interviewing tips. His coach advised him to start looking beyond his narrow specialty of biotechnology Рa sector that has been in decline Рto other similar industries where his skills can be transferred.

He was also advised to revive and stretch his network, read news stories and search the Internet to help him figure out where he might fit in. From this, he decided that growth areas to pursue included alternative energy and environmental and green technology.

“I was coached to come up with a résumé and presentation to appeal to the current needs of employers,” he says.

“Rather than listing static facts on my résumé, I an highlighting my achievements and the value I can add to a company right now and the growth I can help create for the future.”

That approach is paying off.

He launched his search at the start of January and has already had four interviews with potential employers, although no offers as yet.

“At least I can see that with a good search strategy and the right tools, I can trigger interest in companies, even if they are not officially hiring,” Mr. Thomas says.

He is hoping that by the spring he will land a job – the first he’s ever had to actively go after.

“I’m sure there are still a lot of opportunities out there. All I have to do is find them.”

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