Recession Watch: Is Your Job Safe?

With bad news coming out of Wall Street almost daily and the U.S. economy teetering toward a recession, should Americans also be worried about losing their jobs?

Not yet, but maybe soon, according to at least one job watcher.

"No question that if the economy goes into recession, or is already in it, unemployment and job security are going to get worse," said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a consulting firm that provides outplacement services for executives and middle mangers. "The risk of layoffs will grow and the number of layoffs will grow."

"That means often you can get caught without a job through no fault of your own," Challenger said.

It still is too early to tell whether the economy is in a slowdown or a recession, but those afraid of losing their jobs got some bad news earlier this month when the government reported that hiring had come to a virtual standstill.

Each month throughout 2007, employers across the country added an average of 111,000 jobs. But in December that growth stopped abruptly, with the nation's businesses adding just 18,000 new jobs.

For all of 2007, the economy added 1.3 million new jobs -- a million fewer than were added in 2006 -- a marked slowdown.

The biggest job gains come in heath care, professional and business services and restaurants. Job losses were seen in construction, which has been hit hard by the subprime mess, manufacturing, mortgage brokers and retailers.

So what if you are in one of those industries or believe your job might be eliminated?

Cathy Paige, an executive at Manpower, the world's second-largest provider of temporary employees, said not to fret.

"I think there will always be opportunities for people who want them. If you're hardworking, if you're persistent, if you keep your skills current with today's marketplace … you'll be fine," said Paige, vice president and general manager of Manpower's Northeast division. "The world is always looking for hardworking, good employees."

Paige also said that a slowing birthrate is working to the advantage of those seeking work.

"Even though there might be slightly less jobs, there's also slightly less competition," she said.

But workers need to be able to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

"If I worked in shipping and receiving, I would make darn sure I knew how to use a computer and had keyboard skills," Paige said. "It's no longer standing around with a clipboard."

"When I interview people, I certainly look at their job skills. But more than anything, I look at their work ethic and attitude," she said. "You can teach someone to do any job. There's no job here that you're born with the knowledge of."

Given that view, the overall number of jobs might stay the same. But will people who are laid off make as much money?

"If you lost your job as a trader on Wall Street, making [$1.5 million] are you going to find another tomorrow? Maybe not," Paige said. "But if you were working at Nordstrom and you making 50 grand a year, could you find another one? Yeah, I think so, because you would probably -- coming out of a high-end retail store -- have great customer service skills, have flexibility in your work hours and workplace."

Challenger's outlook isn't as rosy. He said companies are very quick to cut jobs today. They used to hold on to employees, hoping to ride out the bad times, but not anymore.

"They need to stay maximally profitable to keep Wall Street happy," Challenger said.

"They're quicker to push people out when times are tough," he said. "They know they dip back into the market and hire people when they need them again."

Challenger said that the job market typically lags up to six months behind the economy. It takes companies some time to lay off workers and there is also a delay in rehiring.

"So far, the labor market has been relatively immune from the effects of this housing-led and credit-led turmoil," he said. "But there's also risk moving forward that if the consumer does start to slow down, many businesses will be affected from retailers to all sorts of things, including hotels and restaurants."