By Carl Winfield
These are uncertain times for the U.S. labor market. Companies such as Merrill Lynch ( MER ), Sony ( SNE ) and Alcatel-Lucent ( ALU ), which have either posted losses or greatly diminished profits, are cutting staff as financial pressures mount. And while the U.S. unemployment rate has held steady at 5.5% for the last two months, there are no guarantees that workers—especially those between ages 50 and 60—will be able to avoid further cutbacks.
This does not mean older employees should start looking for positions at the local Wal-Mart ( WMT ) or the neighborhood car wash. Many have experience and knowledge they can leverage to keep their jobs. But with staffing budgets increasingly under scrutiny, it may pay to be proactive. The first and most important move workers should make: Look for new experiences with their current employer.
“People like to do what they’re good at,” says Melaine Kusin, vice-chairman at Heidrick & Struggles ( HSII ). “But it’s just as important to volunteer for special projects and develop skills that can be applied to other parts of the business.”
Employees can raise their profiles when they make the effort to join special committees or even help organize a companywide social engagement. “Conventional wisdom may say that you should keep your head down, especially during an economic downturn” says Meredith Haberfeld, President of Think Human in New York whose clients include Credit Suisse ( CS ) and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM ). “But my suggestion is that you work your tail off to be visible about the results you’re producing.” Haberfeld also suggests executives toot their own horns.
But other consultants, such as New York-based Dale Kurow, advise executives to be careful about what they say in the workplace. “You want to be the ‘squeaky wheel’ in the sense that you’re proactive,” Kurow says. “But if you complain, you’re probably going to be the first one out the door.”
Becoming the life of the party may be a good way to call attention to yourself but, once all eyes are on you, workers have to put up or get shut out. The best way for executives to keep their jobs or move to the next level is to develop an understanding of the whole business, rather than the part that relates only to them.
“You need to take the lid off your thinking and take a look at how what you do relates to the rest of the business,” says Kurow. “If you don’t know how your part in the business is connected to the others, chances are you’re not going very far.”
Cultivate a Mentor
Workers who are more engaged with the day-to-day operations at their companies have a distinct advantage over those clock-punchers who focus solely on the tasks in their job descriptions. But staying in a job is also about building relationships. While it’s advisable to work well with your peers, it never hurts to develop a close relationship with a mentor, particularly with someone higher up who can help keep you out of harm’s way when the axman cometh.
The job market is getting tougher to negotiate for workers in all age groups. But according to coaches like Haberfeld , you can keep your job as long as you don’t mind maintaining a high profile. Establishing yourself as a leader could make the difference between moving up or being moved out.
“The main element in your career plan has to change from doing what you have to do to impress your superiors to doing what you have to do to impress yourself,” says Haberfeld .