Laid Off and Looking for Work?

People keep asking me, "Isn't it scary to not have an employer and steady paycheck in this economy?"

And I keep telling them, "No more than usual."

As a freelancer, I get paid by about half a dozen companies each month. So job security is not something I fret too much about. If one client dries up, as happens at least once a year (if not once a quarter), I have four or five other sources of income to rely on. And while my nine-to-five counterparts might spend the better part of a year looking for work in the wake of a layoff, my pavement-pounding phase usually lasts all of two to three weeks, if that.

I've been through financial fallouts before as a freelancer. OK, maybe not the "worst financial crisis since the Depression." But I was self-employed when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, taking much of my freelance work with it, and after 9/11, when many staff and freelance budgets vanished seemingly overnight. Both times, I spit-polished my resume, hit the online highway and came up with a new set of clients and projects.

And while I know that the rapid-fire freelance job hunt can't compare to the umpteen weeks and financial and emotional toll that looking for a staff position takes, I can't help but think that full-time job hunters could learn a trick or two from their scrappier self-employed counterparts.

In an economic climate like this, you can't entrust your fate to the employers and hiring managers. Not when you have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. You have to be proactive, flexible, enterprising, even bootstrapping.

In short, you have to operate like a free agent. Here's how:

Don't Hitch Your Wagon to One Star

I hear a lot of hopeful employees say, "I'm praying I get this job I interviewed for yesterday, but the company says they may not make a decision for several weeks."

I hope you get the job, too, but in the meantime, assume you won't and keep looking. Because anything could happen between now and when the company finally makes up its mind: It may find a candidate they like better than you, it may hire someone internally or it may scrap the position altogether to save money.

Any freelancer who has been around the block a couple times knows that a job's never a done deal until the contract is in hand and that putting all your eggs in one basket is the kiss of financial death. So we keep looking for work and expanding our options until a client (or three) says, "You're hired! Now, let's put that in writing."

I suggest you do the same.

Diversify, Diversify, Diversify

It's always fantastic to have a specialty (pet supply product manager, cancer research fundraiser and so on). After all, everyone wants to hire a specialist. That said, if you're an expert in an industry that's on life support (say, financial services), it's high time you diversified.

Busy free agents are masters at diversifying. Because we know that most business niches will have their bumps in the road (our beloved print publications come to mind) and that some will shrivel up and die altogether (anyone remember pay phones?), we keep a toe in several different ponds: high-tech, low-tech, corporate giants, small businesses, you name it.

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