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.
Obviously, a staffer can't be in five different industries or permutations of her job description at once. But the more hats you wear, skills you hone and business sectors you dabble in throughout your career, the more employable you'll be during hard times like these. Likewise, if you dabble in teaching, consulting and public speaking, you not only add a few new skills to your resume, you bring home a little extra bacon and spread the word about your expertise to potential employers.
Long story short: The days of slotting into one nice, neat job description are over.
Meet 10 New People by January
Having a fat Rolodex (virtual or otherwise) is a must for free agents looking to line up new work in a jiffy. But in case you didn't get the memo, the time for nine-to-fivers to make professional connections is also now, while you still have a job. After all, the person you help with an introduction to your company's HR manager today may be the person who hooks you up with a job lead or critical contact tomorrow.
Employed or not, if you can't name at least 10 people you've met since the summer through an online community, industry event or social gathering -- that is, people you'd feel comfortable e-mailing with a question about your career -- it's time to get off your duff and start shaking hands. With all the holiday parties coming up, meeting 10 people by year's end should be a breeze.
Market in Your Sleep
I know some employees experience something along the lines of an existential meltdown any time they need to update their resumes and hone their interviewing chops to impress a potential employer. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Making networking a regular part of your work life as I just mentioned forces you to keep your resume, references and work samples up to date. Because once you start networking, you're going to be passing around your CV (and, if you have one, portfolio) like crazy, and you'll want it to look its Sunday best. If you need an added incentive, try putting your resume on a Web site like VisualCV, which lets you add images, audio, video and documents to it. Nothing shames you into updating your resume faster than slapping it online for the world to see.
More important, building networking into your routine gives you ample practice telling people who you are, what you do and how much you cost, just as a free agent would. Suddenly, none of these conversations will seem traumatic. Instead, they'll become second nature, until, lo and behold, you actually feel confident spouting off about your work experience, expectations from a prospective employer and going rate.
In fact, you may get so good at it, you'll put me out of a job.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.