Jobs come and go, but hopefully your career is bit more solid. If it's not, your skills, goals, and personal career plan can guide you, but it's never a bad time to prepare for a future layoff, job change, or even promotion. They can be tricky to handle, but a strong career "insurance policy" can give you the confidence to make the right choice no matter what life throws at you. Here's how to build one.
What Is a Career Insurance Policy?
We first heard the phrase when career expert Hannah Morgan described it last year, and in this post we'll walk you through building your own. Hannah describes it as a way to financially and professionally protect yourself against the possibility of losing your job. In other words, doing all the things required to make sure that if fate pulls the rug out from under you tomorrow, you'll land safely. We're taking the original idea and piggybacking on it to include some ways to prep you for any career or job shift, not just the unexpected kind.
Whether you've been laid off, thinking about a new job, or you're comfortable in the job you have, a career insurance policy can help take some of the weight from your shoulders. You'll have the basics—money, your professional network, your skills, and an escape plan, all taken care of, so you can focus on deciding what you should do next.
Step One: Protect Yourself Financially with an Emergency Fund
Insurance policies work because, by chipping in periodically, you have a pool of resources to tap into if disaster strikes. This is no different: layoffs can happen even at the strongest companies, and job situations can change drastically (a new boss, a transfer to a different department, terrible managers, etc) and leave you wondering if you can survive another day at work. Whatever happens, the first thing most of us agonize over when considering changing jobs, quitting, or what to do when we're laid off is how we'll pay the bills. Photo by Danielle Elder.
Your emergency fund isn't just in case you lose your job, though. If your work environment gets so terrible that you want to leave badly, or just can't take another day there, having that fund on-hand makes it easy to walk away without having to wait and be miserable while you search for and land a new job. It also gives you the head-space to leave a terrible job and pick a new job carefully so you don't take the first thing that's available, or make the same mistakes at a new job just because you were in a hurry to get out of the last one.
Step Two: Make Yourself More Valuable by Diversifying Your Skills and Experience
One of the best things I ever did for my career was make a move from one part of my field (systems administration and support) to another (technical project management.) The result, after a few years and keeping up with both ends of the industry, was that I found myself capable of moving in either direction if I had to—I could look at opportunities and think "well, if this all goes down the tubes, I can always go back to being a sysadmin, I'm still good at that!" Granted, I had a job that let me keep my old skills honed while working at the new ones (translation: We were shorthanded and encouraged to jump in and help out instead of standing back and saying "that's not my job,") but if you're facing a career change, a possible promotion, or a layoff, don't let yourself get caught knowing how to do only one thing or work with any one tool. The best time to learn something new is when you don't need the skill. Photo by Elvert Barnes.
We've explained that being good at one thing just isn't enough anymore, but it can be worse when that one thing you're good at is suddenly no longer in high demand. There are plenty of ways to pick up new skills without much risk. Take night classes, go back to school for an advanced degree, take up an apprenticeship, or pick up a part time job. Your skill doesn't have to be a something as big as a degree or certification either: pick up a new language, or learn a new programming language or tool, or explore a side-passion or hobby. Consider an internship or doing some volunteer work to pick up those desirable skills. In any case, you get the skills, the non-profit gets the job done or a helping hand, and everyone wins.
Whatever you do, make a commitment to keep learning and regularly pick up new skills that interest you and can benefit you professionally. You may even be able to turn those side passions or skills into a paying thing—a way to diversify your income streams so you're not so heavily reliant on the job you have.
Step Three: Protect Yourself Professionally by Beefing Up Your Network
These days, getting a great job has just as much to do with who you know as it does what you know and what you can bring to the table. Companies everywhere get thousands of applicants each day, and the best way to get a leg up on the competition is to have a friends in the right places who are willing to lend you a hand—and in turn, who you can help when they need it. We mentioned using the "Layoff Test" to beef up your network, or thinking about the ten people you would reach out to for advice or support if you got laid off tomorrow. If you can't think of ten people, your professional network probably sucks, but you can do something about it. Here are a few ways to improve your professional network now, while you're gainfully employed and not necessarily looking for a new opportunity. Photo by Warren Goldswain.
Reconnect with old coworkers or managers you haven't spoken to in a while. Offer your help to them, see what they have going on professionally. The first rule of professional networking is to stop thinking of it as professional networking: all you're doing is making friends and extending your help to people who may need it. What goes around comes around. Ask those old contacts out for coffee in the morning or for lunch and catch up. You should never need to IM or call an old coworker because you're interviewing and need a reference from an old job.
Get involved in industry groups or trade associations. Most of us incorrectly assume that the only people we can and should network with are previous coworkers or managers—people who know how we work and can vouch for us. That's all well and good, but if a company lays off your entire department, your friends will need help as much as you do. Join a professional organization (for example, even though I haven't been a full time project manager, I'm still a member of the Project Management Institute) or trade group dedicated to your craft—or your desired craft. Go to meetings, seminars, or dinners and meet people. Listen to presentations. Learn something new, and meet people who have something to teach you.
Make personal, one-on-one connections with people you admire. If the idea of huge industry gatherings or busy coffee shops is too much, this piece on networking for introverts might help. You probably already know a few people in your field—or your preferred field—whose work you admire. Reach out to them personally to get to know them. Let them know you're interested in their work, and would love to talk to them about it. Meet them, talk, and make a personal connection. Offer your help if they can use it.
Remember, "professional network" is really code for "friends who help each other professionally when they can." That's all—there's no magic or secret handshake. Be sincere, willing to help other people, and in general a nice person, and others will do the same for you.
Step Four: Keep Your Résumé and Social Networks Updated, and Learn How to Promote Yourself
The first thing that many of us do as soon as we think about leaving a job or have lost a job is update our résumés and our profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, and job boards where we have our résumés saved. It's an unfortunate necessity, but if you've waited until you're leaving (or have been let go!) to add your most recent job to your résumés, you're doing it wrong.
Set aside an hour one night to make sure your résumés is up to date—everything from your contact information to your current job title and responsibilities. Then make it a recurring thing, every few months, sooner if things tend to move quickly at your job. This way, you'll never be in the position of thinking back two years to remember your accomplishments or responsibilities just because that's the last time you updated your résumés or LinkedIn profile. If you have a professional nameplate site, or a personal site where you host your résumés or portfolio, update that as well. It's worth the effort of doing now, while everything is fine, so you can devote more energy towards deciding what to do when the time comes to send those links to a potential employer, or after you've been laid off. Photo by CharlotWest.
At the same time, learn how to promote yourself without being sleazy about it. You have desirable skills and experience that any employer would want, so flaunt it. Give anyone looking for more information about you something great to look at and find when they search for you online, or reach out to their colleagues about you.
Step Five: Turn Your Hobbies, Passions, or Extra Skills Into a Second Income Stream
A single income stream is risky, and the fact that most of us are entirely dependent on our one jobs is one of the biggest reasons job uncertainty stresses us out. Pending layoffs, reorganizations, any small change can very literally take our livelihoods away. Back when getting a job meant you'd have it until you retired, that wasn't a big deal, but now, getting laid off can lead to financial ruin, and unemployment insurance is no substitute for a full paycheck. Instead of leaving it up to fate, diversify your income streams. Photo by Koshyk.
We're not saying work multiple jobs just because you can, but you should definitely consider finding ways to take some of your interest areas, hobbies, or passions that you may want to turn into careers someday and turning them into a second income stream. If you like to write, consider freelance writing or starting your own blog. If you're technically inclined, consider offering to repair friends' and neighbors' computers for a fee, or to help them with the things you know how to do, like backing up their data or accessing their systems remotely. It's not easy, but it's a great way to fill your emergency fund a little faster, and to make yourself a little less reliant on the whims of one employer. Then you can think more clearly about whether a layoff is coming your way, or whether a promotion or change in primary jobs is best for you.
Ideally, all of these suggestions will help you build a kind of bulletproof "career armor" that will help protect you from sudden changes and make difficult decisions a little easier. You'll have the basics covered and you'll be prepared for most common eventualities. More importantly, you'll be ready to tackle whatever comes your way with confidence, knowing you're ready for it. That's the best thing insurance can possibly offer.