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Is there life after unemployment? Yes - if you're willing to stay flexible, acquire new skills and take some risks.

Sandra Trimble's career was soaring in the early spring of 1992. Her 10-year rise at the Westchester-based insurance firm, Mutual of New York (MONY), had brought her material comfort, challenge and a strong commitment to the company that had hired her straight out of New York University's MBA program in 1982.

"Most of my friends had several jobs during the time I was at MONY," says Trimble, 34, who had followed a more traditional career path. She started as a $32,000-a-year management trainee in MONY's pension marketing department and worked her way up to director of corporate relations in charge of the Westchester office's philanthropic budget.

Then, last April, everything changed. Rumors of reorganization, triggered after Moody's Investors Service had downgraded MONY's bond rating in mid-1990, were now a grim reality, and Trimble, like 80 or so other employees at the Westchester office, was left without a job.

"Suddenly I was more aware than ever that there's no such thing as job security," recalls Trimble, who chose to view the layoff as an opportunity to expand her career horizons.

"I also learned that 10years is far too long to stay with one organization," Trimble says.

Facing The New Facts Of Life

Like thousands of other formerly secure, one-company veterans cut from corporate payrolls after years of dedicated service, Trimble discovered some important facts about today's labor market: Lifetime employment with one firm is a thing of the past. Now restructuring, downsizing and hiring freezes are the order of the day as American companies continue streamlining their operations.

For the burgeoning ranks of unemployed white-collar managers and professionals who launched and built successful careers with one organization, a new approach to employment must be taken. Today, the ability to take initiative, be flexible and focus on reassessing and acquiring new skills, while repackaging and marketing those talents in a leaner, meaner corporate environment is the difference between getting your career back on track or falling behind in the crush to compete in a shrinking job market.

Indeed, according to an October 1992 work force reduction survey by the New York City-based American Management Association (AMA), 46% of companies--from manufacturing and financial services to professional services and wholesale/retail trade-reported downsizing activity in the 12 months prior to June compared with 55% in 1991. However, a whopping 25% planned further reductions before the end of June 1993, the highest record of planned reductions in the AMA survey's 6-year history.

No doubt, the human toll has been high, with some 15 million workers losing their jobs nationwide between 1987 and 1992, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of that number, 5.6 million had been with their companies for a minimum of three years. That's 1.3 million higher than the level found two years earlier. Of the 5.6 million unemployed, 52% cited company closings or relocations as reasons for their job loss, with the remainder linking their dismissals to position or shift elimination, or to insufficient demand for products or services. What's more, executives administrators and other managerial professionals sustained some of the deepest cuts. Their displacement surged 50% in the same period to over 1.2 million, with roughly 19% of that number out of work and looking for jobs.

Complicating matters is the fact that the segments of the economy that have traditionally provided jobs for most managerial personnel--finance, insurance, real estate and other private services--are some of the slowest to rebound in a recession. That means longer periods of unemployment for displaced managers. According to Drake Beam Morin Inc. (DBM), the international human resources management and outplacement firm, it's taking managers an average of 7.6 months to land a job, up from 5.8 months in 1989.

DBM also identifies job function as a critical factor affecting search time. Those in marketing and sales and those in engineering are averaging 6.4 and 5.5 months, respectively, to find new positions, compared with those in finance and accounting, human resources, information systems and science, who averaged between eight and 10 months to find new jobs.

Facing the prospect of a prolonged job hunt in these managerial dog days is especially hard for people who enjoyed long, flourishing careers with the IBMs and AT&Ts of the world. "It's like coming out of a deep sleep," says Michael J. Reid, managing director of Montgomery West executive Search (MWES), an executive recruitment firm in San Francisco. "You've been so company-centered, so used to having this big organization take care of you and your career that you don't keep up with what's happening in your industry or in competing industries," he notes.

Making matters worse is the increased sense of anger and betrayal that afflicts many of those who've had long histories with one company. Wendy Rothman, a New York City-based industrial psychologist specializing in career management, likens the experience of job loss to any other kind of grief, where denial, anger and finally acceptance are part of a normal, albeit uncomfortable cycle. "Don't be upset that you're upset," advises Rothman, who is also a consultant for DBM. "By making up your mind to get the anger and denial out of the way, you'll have lots more energy and a better attitude when the time comes to find another job." She also recommends joining groups similar to the Five O'clock Club in New York City, where out-of-work professionals receive support counseling while learning the latest trends in job hunting--from organizing the search and identifying industry targets to generating interviews and doing meaningful follow-ups.

The bottom line is that there's little room for complacency in American business today. "With employers placing more and more emphasis on matching the best performing worker with the best fitting job, and with performance criteria becoming increasingly more stringent, it won't be enough to be merely good at what you do. One has to be essential [to one's company]," says Charles A. Ballard Jr., senior vice president of Manchester Inc., a New York City-based firm specializing in career transition, individual and organization performance consulting.

Before The Ax Falls

The first step to reaching the goal of becoming an "active employee," says Ballard, is to avoid turning a blind eye to the warning signs of change. Monitor the vitality of your company and learn to recognize the symptoms of poor health that could cost you your job. For example, don't ignore your company's profit statements. Sustained lower earnings could signal future cutbacks. And, pay attention to changes at the top of your department or division such as layoffs of key executives or any announcements of mergers, acquisitions or divestitures, all of which are warning signs of possible downsizing and restructuring activity. The AMA notes that even after downsizing, 63% of the companies who did so in a given year are likely to do so again the following year.

In addition, say the experts, wake up to the fact that you're living in an era when jobs are being permanently erased from organizational charts--as many as 2,000 a day, notes Workplace Trends, an industry newsletter. As a result everyone from strategic planners to financial analysts and other number crunchers are being replaced by cost efficient, state-of-the-art computer technology, fully equipped with those who can run it.

"Listen to the messages and get over your computer shyness," urges Michael Reid of MWES. "You've got a much better chance of keeping your job if you keep up with the technology shaping your company's operations." Contact technical schools, attend computer workshops and seminars, or take classes at local colleges to supplement your skills, he points out.

And even if your company has a good track record for retaining minorities, don't think for a minute that it will give you an edge come cutback time. "African-Americans who've been with one company for the long haul should never get the idea they won't be laid off just because their company exercises a strong policy to integrate people into the organization," says Reid.

In the end, Reid explains, decisions to hire or downsize are based primarily on whether or not your function, department or division is earning or saving money for the company, or increasing the efficiency of the organization.

On the other hand, say career professionals, keep in mind that "diversity" will be an issue in the '90s as companies like Lotus, Xerox, Gannet and Corning embark on comprehensive, computer-based training programs to adapt the workplace to the growing presence of minorities and women. It's no wonder, considering that experts expect minorities and women to account for 62% of the U.S. work force by 2005.

Now more than ever, says Reid, human resources personnel are skilled in identifying minority candidates from resumes and job applications. So take seriously all those ads that "encourage women and people of color to apply," he says. And, give some designation to your ethnicity by listing professional African-American organizations and associations in your resume.

Most importantly, when the time comes to leave the job you thought you'd have forever, don't discount all those valuable years of experience. A decade or more with one organization reflects career stability. It also implies you have a working knowledge of the corporate culture, how things get done and by whom, which is a plus on any resume. Take heart in the fact that while they're hard-hit by the movement to reshape American business, management pros with state-of-the-art skills in finance, accounting, marketing, sales and engineering will always be valuable to employers eager to make do with leaner management teams.

Severing Old Ties

Gone are the days of climbing straight up the corporate ladder. Think instead of a career path that zigzags from industry to industry, from big cities to small towns, from large companies to small start-ups. Learning to navigate those twists and turns is vital for professional advancement in the '90s, particularly if you've spent a decade or more taking the climb one step at a time.

But no matter what direction you take, starting your journey with a good severance package will help smooth out the ride. According to a 1992 employee separation and compensation survey by Manchester, the percentage of companies that offer both internal and external outplacement services has increased from 28% in 1988 to 51% today.

Depending on such variables as length of service, job level, performance and salary, packages can range anywhere from two to four weeks pay for each year of service for a maximum of 26 to 52 weeks for middle managers, to four weeks salary for each year of service for a maximum of two years pay for senior executives.

What's in most severance packages? The majority include the extension of health benefits, which allows displaced workers to receive coverage at reduced group rates for up to 18 months after leaving the job. Again, depending on the previously mentioned variables, packages can also include continuation of profit sharing and 401(k) participation, and for senior managers and top level executives, agreements for use of a company car, secretarial services, stock options and bonuses are usually negotiable.

Even so, Lina Rusty, senior vice president/general manager at Lee Hecht Harrison in Oakland, Calif., one of the nation's largest outplacement and career management firms, warns that companies are not bound by any law to provide severance packages. However, in most cases, federal regulation does require extension of health care benefits to outplaced employees. "At the senior level, make sure you negotiate for some kind of financial agreement that addresses what and how much you should receive at termination," advises Rusty. And if offered, take advantage of outplacement services, where workshops and professional counseling on everything from self-assessment, job search techniques, resume composition and interview strategies are designed to help ease the transition to a new work environment.

"There are very few times in life," says Rusty, "when people have a chance to define what's important to them, especially people who've been with one company for so many years." Displacement can be viewed as an opportunity to venture out, do something new and learn about yourself.

Tamara Deplanter ,42, an optimistic veteran of two layoffs in 16 years, knows something about that. The first time the ax fell it was 1985. Deplanter, who holds an MBA from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., was in her eleventh year at General Electric (GE) in Morristown, New Jersey. During her tenure, she'd moved up the ranks to a $40,000-plus position as application support manager in GE's information services group.

Like Sandra Trimble, Deplanter spotted the signs of a shake-out two years before happened, when the information services group was reorganized and several employees lost their jobs. The second reorganization came nine months later and Deplanter braced herself for the worst.

"When my boss left, I knew I would be next," says Deplanter, who kept a cool head about the possibility of being out of work. "I was never one to define myself by my job," she explains.

Although no outplacement services were offered by GE, the company did give Deplanter the option of taking a lump sum payment equal to eight months full pay. But she decided to stay on the payroll to continue her health benefits and participate in Ge's savings plan. The package allowed Deplanter to do exactly what she wanted: travel, network, take her time to study different industries, contact headhunters and retool her resume. "I firmly believe that if you're well-positioned and have the skills, you'll get whatever job you want," she says confidently.

And in October 1986 she did, landing the job of assistant treasurer at FASTCO Technology for Banker's Trust in New York City, where she specialized in application support for the firm's clients and in-house staff. But in 1991, the ax fell again, eliminating her $50,000-plus position. This time Deplanter was offered outplacement, a continuation of her health benefits and 12 weeks full pay with a four month extension if needed.

Again, the package provided Deplanter with the opportunity to explore a range of job skills--from free-lance computer consulting for friends with home offices, to substitute teaching in the New Jersey public school system. Ultimately she hopes to find a sales or sales support-position with a software engineering firm.

When asked what advice she'd offer to those recently displaced from their jobs: "Don't panic," says Deplanter. "Aiming for flexibility and optimism means you'll always have the right attitude going into a now job as well as going out."

Crossing Lines

How do you make the jump from a 600-employee insurance firm to a nonprofit organization with a 135-person staff in five short months? In Sandra Trimble's case it was a matter of designing a plan of action and sticking to it.

The decline of MONY's bond rating had put Trimble on layoff alert as far back as 1990. "That was a pretty clear sign that something was going to happen," she recalls. "It was just a matter of when."

In preparation for the inevitable, Trimble spent time at the library, sifting through trade journals and articles on a variety of industries from investment banking to cosmetic companies. She also reviewed her resume with the help of a professional career counselor to determine her portable skill package, which included analysis, marketing and written and oral communication. "I had a good feeling working in the community and with nonprofit organizations at MONY," she explains. "But I didn't want to focus on staying in insurance because of the instability of the industry."

In retrospect, says Trimble, getting a head start on researching industries and companies and updating her resume helped soften the blow when the announcement came in April 1992. It also shortened the time she spent in outplacement. "A lot of what my individual counselor advised me to do, I had already done," she adds.

In total, Trimble spent two weeks cleaning up her desk before leaving MONY with a severance package equaling several months salary. Her duties managing and allocating the company's foundation budget and representing MONY on the boards of 15 nonprofit organizations were left in the hands' of her manager.

Recalls Trimble: "I was asked to stay on a little longer, but I found it difficult with everyone feeling sorry that I was going. It was like a death." After putting her resume in circulation, she took two months off to do some reading, work through the loss and get refocused. She also had address cards printed and purchased a computer and printer to generate cover letters and resumes as needed.

But rather than hide the fact that she'd been laid off, Trimble spread the word through her contacts with former board members, a strategy that paid off in July when the New York City-based Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), a non-profit organization specializing in economic development, called her in for an interview. "It was very important to me to find a job I could feel great about," she says, adding that she was pleased and enthusiastic about LISC's development work in communities nationally.

Impressed by her background in finance and marketing and her association with nonprofit organizations, LISC offered her the job as director of corporate foundation relations, with a salary comparable to what she'd earned at MONY. In her new role, Trimble is responsible for managing LISC's fundraising and proposal development.

Says Willie Bright of Urban Placement Services, an executive search firm in Houston, Texas: "Nonprofit organizations can offer good opportunities especially if they parallel or are associated with your current expertise." Additionally, Bright notes that although salaries may or may not be as high, many nonprofits are pleased to attract executives from the corporate sector as are academic institutions and government agencies.

Juan Menefee, president and CEO of Juan Menefee & Associates (JMA), an executive search firm in Oak Park, Ill. adds that making the leap to the booming health care industry, where over 400,000 jobs have been created during the past three years, is another good option. "If you go in with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, you can move very quickly into management positions with high levels of financial compensation."

However, be prepared to take an initial cut in pay. For example, if you were making between $55,000 and $65,000 in a marketing job at a major manufacturer such as Procter & Gamble, expect to start at $30,000 to $35,000 level in health care. The upside, says Menefee is that commissions and bonuses in health care can easily push yearly earnings into the six-figure range. "You don't need a health sciences background either," says Menefee. "And if you study your products and have solid negotiating and presentation skills, you stand a good chance of making an excellent living."

Network Your Way To Opportunity

If you have a professional network, use it. If you don't have a network, create one, urges Michael Reid of MWES. For example, if your company has several divisions and yours is on the hit list do some research and contact managers in other divisions.

Ask what skills are in demand and what kind of retooling you'd need in order to quality for new openings. "Often times divisions don't communicate across lines, explains Reid., "That means job listings in the western division may not be posted in another location, so reach out."

Use every lead you have, advises Reid, including peers, professional associates, business contacts or headhunters who might have called you in the past. And don't ignore your professional organizations; most are excellent sources of information and support Remember, too, that networking isn't just about sticking to African-American groups either. Says Reid: "Its also about going out and sitting in the cafeteria with people who do other jobs who are not African-American but who might be privy to job opportunities."

Be Your Own Bass

The strong will survive, notes Willie Bright of Urban Placement Services, who says another popular career alternative for seasoned out-of-work professionals is contracting or consulting services.

According to Bright, companies across the spectrum are contracting data processing, market research, financial and accounting services to name a few. In fact Manchester employee separation study indicates that about 70% of the 700 companies surveyed have future plans to increase their use of consultants.

Average pay? Anywhere from $20 to $50 an hour or more, says, Juan Menefee of JMA. Additionally, a growing number of search firms and headhunters are now specializing in placing consultants. Its also a good option for people who wants to travel or gain access to new industries and for senior executives who may have difficulty finding full-time employment that is commensurate with their salaries and experience.

"Its all part of the move by companies to keep overhead low while assuring quality service," says Bright. He adds that independent consulting is also way to begin to establish yourself as full-fledged entrepreneur."

Even so, private consulting isn't the only bridge leading to entrepreneurship. Take the case of Wendell Alfred. For 11 years he worked as a human resources representative at a major petroleum company in Houston, Texas, handling responsibilities from labor relations to salary administration. During that time, his own yearly earnings climbed from an initial base of $25,000 to more than double that amount.

Then, in July 1991, company cutbacks suddenly derailed Alfred's career. "I was shocked," he recalls, 'especially since I'd joined the industry back in 1980 because of its solid performance and track record."

For the next six to eight months, Alfred, now 39, made full use of the company's outplacement services by attending job hunting seminars, revamping his resume and typing cover letters. He researched companies in his own industry and investigated others as well. But after several interviews and two offers, he decided to fulfill a longtime dream by launching his own business.

His approach: Buying a local private postal service franchise, namely Mail Boxes Etc. with start-up fees of about $60,000. Together, he and real estate agent wife Hilda, studied the franchise organization and reviewed their own assets, which included Alfred's severance package. Using their combined management and administrative skills, the two developed a preliminary business plan, then set out for San Diego this past August to attend an MBE training seminar.

"It's going to be a totally different lifestyle," says Alfred, who at press time, was planning to open his franchise in November 1992. He admits that while unemployment can sometimes spell business ownership, making that venture successful often requires taking far more risks than those encountered in a stable, nine-to-five job. Now he has to do it all--from hiring and firing to controlling the purse strings and marketing the business.

But for Alfred, having the opportunity is all that matters. "I'm getting on with my life, diversifying my background and keeping my resume in circulation," he says, ready to take his business career to even greater heights.

Short or long, the avenues leading to gainful employment in today's tough job market offer no shortcuts or back roads to success. But armed with experience, sharpened skills, perseverance and a positive outlook, you too, can summon the necessary courage to take that first step.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes suggestions for regaining employment
Author:Whittingham-Barnes, Donna
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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