How to stay employed if (when) a recession hits

Volunteer for projects, add to your skills, suck up to the boss

With global stock markets in flux and the US economy either in the midst of a recession or teetering on the edge, there are steps you can take that may help protect your IT job.

It may not be a bad idea to start thinking about such things, say several employment experts who are closely watching job statistics and other economic indicators.

"Right now, in this day and age, if anyone is working in IT, the closer you work on relationships with customers, the better the opportunities you're going to have," said Jim Lanzalatto, vice president of strategy and marketing at staffing agency Yoh in Philadelphia. "That's in any economic environment, but it's more critical in this economic environment."

Follow the customers

In tough times, he said, the first IT projects to be eliminated are the ones that are farthest away from creating customer value, such as internally-faced projects. To have a better chance of keeping your job, you want to be involved in work that is customer-focused. "Things around infrastructure and security, they'll always get done," he said.

"The ones that are directly related to customer value -- such as projects around CRM, customer portals, revenue management -- those are the projects that have the greatest staying power," Lanzalatto said. "Customers are king right now. Revenues which grow are paramount right now for companies."

"I would get involved in those projects, absolutely," by volunteering to help or gaining needed new skills, he said. "This is the place for IT workers."

The job concerns will also depend on where you do your IT work, he said. "The one thing we have learned from our customers is this is going to be more of an industry-driven issue," Lanzalatto said. "If you're a project manager for a bank or a financial services company, that's a precarious place right now, because those industries are having tough times. But if you take a market, let's say consumer products, things are much more stable. Being in the right place at the right time, you have to be opportunistic."

Much will depend on how long and serious any impending recession turns out to be, he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic. I think that's the right term right now. In the tech, engineering and scientific communities, there's pent-up demand from customers. There are projects in the pipeline, budgets have already been set, so those are big pluses in the marketplace" because that work is already under way. "The current demand is still strong, and that's where the optimism comes in."

At the same time, he said, things could change quickly. "The cautiousness comes from the unbearable lightness of being. You just don't know what's around the bend."

Another factor to consider, he said, is the definition of an economic recession -- several consecutive quarters of decline as measured by the gross domestic product. "So have we seen that fundamental already, or is it just a fear?" Lanzalatto asked. "I'm not an economist, but everybody's got that fear in their heads right now. Is that going to turn into a reality?"

Stay friendly with the boss

If you want to successfully weather the current economic difficulties, you must "make yourself indispensable," said John Challenger, president of Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"Make sure your relationship with your boss is in good repair," Challenger said. "That way, if the boss is told to make cuts, there may be people more competent but who have a worse relationship" with managers. "It's easier to get rid of people they don't get along with."

If your relationship with your manager isn't good, then "go work at it," he said. "You don't want the relationship too distant. You certainly don't want it to be too negative."

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