Making Sense of a Softening Job Market

For the U.S. economy, the hits keep coming.

In February, employers cut jobs by the largest amount in five years. According to the Associated Press:

For the second straight month, nervous employers got rid of jobs nationwide. In February, they sliced payrolls by 63,000, even deeper than the 22,000 cut in January, the Labor Department reported Friday. The grim snapshot of the country’s employment climate underscored the heavy toll the housing and credit debacles are taking on companies, jobseekers and the economy as a whole.

While the Bush administration tries to remain upbeat, toting a recent stimulus package, others are casting a darker shadow over the future. A New York Times story reports:

Within minutes of the new report on employment, many in the dwindling pool of optimists changed their positions. ... Just one minute after the Labor Department published its report at 8:30 a.m., JPMorgan Chase reversed its stance, declaring that a recession appeared to have begun. Lehman Brothers switched its position as well.

What does this all mean for workers and jobseekers?

Safeguarding Yourself--and Your Job

While none of this is good news, workers and jobseekers should not panic. There are steps you can take to protect yourself, and two recent PayScale stories offer tips for doing just that.

I recently wrote a story about jobs that are relatively insulated when fiscal chaos erupts: healthcare, sales and marketing, and government jobs are more or less recession-proof, experts say. And no matter what industry you're in, there are ways to make yourself less expendable, such as showing higher-ups you would flourish no matter where you land in the company.

If a layoff does strike close to your office, being proactive is key to staying afloat, reports Cherie Berkley in her story, "7 Ways to Survive a Layoff." Keep your ear to the ground at work, she notes, so you're forewarned of an impending layoff. Also make sure you're continually networking and researching professional organizations.

A Bigger Picture

While the mainstream press is focusing on employers slashing jobs and the unraveling housing-and-credit crises, there is other news to keep in mind. Manpower recently released its Employment Outlook Survey for the second quarter of 2008, offering a slightly different take on the jobs situation. According to the survey:

Of the 14,000 U.S. employers surveyed, 26% expect to increase their workforces during Quarter 2 of 2008, while 9% expect to reduce staff levels. Sixty percent expect no change in the hiring pace, and 5% are undecided about their April - June hiring plans.

The survey taps quarterly data from more than 55,000 employers worldwide, in the United States and 31 other countries and territories.

Jeffrey A. Joerres, chairman and CEO of Manpower Inc., explains:

A slowing in hiring intentions reflects a widespread wait-and-see approach among employers. However, the survey data points to a gradual and measured downshift, not a sudden and overwhelming change. Interestingly, this data does not look like previous recessionary periods where we experienced much more accelerated declines.

This paints a somewhat brighter picture. Not all employers, it seems, will be paring down--and it might not be as bad as recessions in the past.

Francie Dalton, president of Dalton Alliances, a business consulting firm in Columbia, Md., suggests keeping the fiscal slump in perspective. Dalton says all the talk of recession is creating a sense the job market is glutted with qualified workers, but that's not true. She points to a looming shortage of skilled workers:

We won't have in this country enough human beings to take on those jobs--they're not going to be here. So what we'll have is the baby boomers doing shift work and part-time jobs, and the younger workers who don't have a lot of experience, and a huge gap in the middle.

Once a recession ends, this gap will be evident, Dalton says, and "we'll be in the greatest workforce crisis that this country has ever seen."

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