The hard lessons I learned the first time I was laid off
Editor’s Note: Phoebe Gavin is a career coach, speaker and trainer specializing in career strategy, negotiation and empathetic leadership. The views expressed in this article are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
If 2023 has taught us anything so far, it’s that job security is a fiction. The year has been littered with layoffs at companies we’d expect to be good, stable places to work — and it’s leaving many people wondering if they should be worried about layoffs coming for them too.
The truth is, there is no such thing as a layoff-proof job. Companies will always act in their own best interests, even if it costs their employees dearly. If the job — or the individual holding it — is no longer perceived to help the company grow, the position will be eliminated. We have little control over when or how that happens.
So what are you to do? Focus on career security over job security. You can’t stop your company from laying you off, but you can build a career that survives and thrives anyway by investing in your professional resilience.
I learned this lesson the hard way after my first layoff years ago. I come from a low-income background. I’m a first-generation college graduate and first-generation white-collar professional. My parents were loving and dedicated, but they couldn’t teach me what they didn’t know. So when my company laid me off in 2015, I was completely unprepared.
I had no financial or professional backup plan. I pieced together a few one-off gigs to bring in a little money, but I had to partially live off my credit card for most of my unemployment period. Four months and $15,000 later, I finally got lucky and a friend of a friend introduced me to my next boss. With that first paycheck, I made myself a promise: never again.
When my job was eliminated this past January, I had eight years of cumulative preparation to draw on. I had a side hustle to bring in some income, savings that allowed me to live for six months without incurring debt, a network of people who wanted to help me and skills people wanted to hire me for. I’d kept my promise to myself never to be unprepared again.
I’ve made a point of consistently investing in my professional resilience ever since. So when I was laid off from my human resources job in January, I knew I would be OK, because there’s no unemployment insurance like preparation.
So how do you build a career that survives and thrives through economic downturns?
1) Build enough savings to weather the storm or walk away before it hits
2) Develop and maintain a robust network that offers you opportunities
3) Maintain marketable skills so someone always wants what you do
4) Plan your next career pivot proactively, but with care
These are big goals, but breaking them into actionable, sustainable steps will allow you to be consistent so your professional resilience can grow.
“Sufficient” means different things for different people, and it will change as you move through the seasons of life. And yes, I know, more easily said than done. Believe me, there is money in your budget that you can set aside.
Find budgeting, saving and investing strategies that work for you by learning about personal finance from reputable sources. If you find the prospect overwhelming, start small by following reputable publications or certified experts on your favorite social media platforms. Staying ignorant about personal finance only benefits those who want to take money from you.
Know when it’s time to go deeper and start reading books, taking courses, or working one-on-one with a financial expert to talk more in-depth about your situation. Don’t assume these services are only for wealthy people. There are plenty of experts who help everyday people with their finances at an accessible price and non-profit organizations that provide services at low or no cost.
If you ensure you’re regularly getting of high-quality personal finance information, you’ll naturally start to make better spending, saving, and investing decisions.
If putting the sound financial advice you gather into action feels difficult, it might be time to look inward. Every day we make money choices informed by our experiences, beliefs, knowledge, history, and most importantly, our habits. So if those ingrained mental models are holding you back, it might be time to do the inner work of identifying and changing them so you can benefit from your newfound personal finance knowledge.
Good personal finance habits help you slice the proverbial pie more responsibly, but eventually you have to start growing it — and that’s where your network comes in.
Many people don’t realize it, but there are two job markets: the public job market, driven by job boards and careers pages, and the shadow job market, driven by relationships and reputation. Unsurprisingly, the best opportunities are in the shadow job market. If you want to access the shadow job market, you need to know people, and people need to know you.
Make it easy for recruiters and hiring managers to find you by optimizing your LinkedIn profile for discovery through LinkedIn search. LinkedIn is an essential sourcing tool for recruiters and hiring managers. If your profile is a compelling representation of who you are and where you want to go as a professional, you’ll receive outreach about great opportunities you didn’t even know existed.
Once your LinkedIn is polished, start refreshing, deepening, and expanding your network. Current and former colleagues are an easy place to start. They already know you, won’t be surprised to hear from you, and will usually be happy to discuss your respective professional goals.
Trade groups, professional associations, and informal online communities are easy sources of high-quality networking contacts. Join some and find ways to actively and meaningfully contribute to the community. Seek to make your interactions as reciprocal and mutually beneficial as possible.
Don’t get stuck in a static understanding of your field or industry. Instead, stay curious about how they’re growing and changing. Listen to the market and invest in the skills that make you more valuable to your industry. Your network — particularly if you’re active in professional groups — is an invaluable source of this information.
Make a point of regularly investing in your professional development. Ask your manager and your HR rep what professional development opportunities might be available. If there are no opportunities or they aren’t the right fit for your goals, invest in yourself. Stale skills are a ticking time bomb. If you aren’t growing them, it’s only a matter of time before you get left behind.
If you think you might be ready to chart a new career path, explore your passions and interests. It’s easier to design a pivot that will be both enjoyable and lucrative if you understand your passions and interests, the kinds of jobs in the economy around them and the business opportunities they could generate.
This is how I found my profession of career coaching. I’ve derived great joy and fulfillment from mentoring and sponsoring people throughout my professional career. My coaching practice began as an experimental side hustle, but quickly became a joyful and profitable part of my professional life.
My job wasn’t layoff-proof, but my career is. If you start investing in your professional resilience today, yours can be too.