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Protect Your Career While You Have a Job

It’s no secret that many Americans don’t have the career options they once did.

Yes, hiring has picked up. But not everyone has been benefiting from the uptick. A recent Rutgers University titled Left Behind quantifies just how bad it has been for those who have slipped into the long-term unemployed since the recession. Nearly 40% of workers laid off in the last five years looked for a job for seven months before becoming re-employed and one fifth never found another job. Among those who did find a job, one fourth said it was as a temporary gig.

That can be a very difficult situation to get out of, so if you are working, you should take steps to try to avoid it. Here are some proactive strategies that will help you stay in the driver’s seat in your career.

Focus on what you can control. You can’t do much to prevent someone in headquarters from wiping out your job with the stroke of a pen. But you can keep an eye on how your employer is doing so you can react early. Pay close attention to what is said—and left unsaid—in meetings with your bosses about the financial health of the company and its key priorities. Set up a Google Alert with your organization’s name, to stay aware of any developments that may affect its ability to keep employing you and your colleagues. If you work for an ad agency, for instance, and another agency snares one of your firm’s clients, that could make your job shaky.

Stay productive in measurable ways. Many firms don’t tell you this but top executives often keep a close eye on how much profit they earn from each employee. Some even use complicated metrics to track this. If they determine they are losing money by keeping you on staff because you are not productive enough, they will not keep you for long.

Working 24/7 is not the answer to this. Firms that track this usually tie productivity to achieving certain goals that move the needle for the firm. For instance, a sales person might be measured by how much new business he or she brings in. If your job isn’t as closely tied to revenue, find out from your boss what metrics are actually used to measure your productivity. Focus on keeping those numbers up, even if it means you have less time to do projects that you feel are more worthy or personally fulfilling. This may sound harsh but this is the world of employment that we live in today. If you want carte blanche to determine what you work on, starting your own business is a better bet.

Keep your options open. In the Rutgers survey, 44% of workers who lost a job and found another said their next gig was a step down. The time to upgrade skills to make yourself more marketable is not when you’re unemployed—it’s long before that. Ask trusted colleagues from outside your company what one skill you could add that would make you much more marketable to your target employers. Do you pick up any patterns? If so, commit to devoting one hour a week to learning that skill. It’ll put you in a position of power if you ever do lose your job, so you can look for a new one that’s a step up.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.