Many of you reading this own your company, so you don’t have to worry about being laid off, except in the sense of being put out of work by going bankrupt in a miserable economy. The marketplace is everyone’s ultimate boss, at least for those of us who work in the private sector.
But this article is directed at those of you who do not have ownership positions. If you’re feeling uneasy about your job security, you’re hardly alone. I’m writing this in early February, shortly after the Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment data for January. It showed 111,000 construction jobs lost in the first month of this year, with the unemployment rate rising to 18.2 percent, up from 11 percent in January 2008 and 15.3 percent at year’s end. Construction lost 632,000 jobs last year, the largest absolute loss in 33 years and the largest percentage decline (8.5 percent) since 1991. That total accounted for nearly a quarter of all payroll job losses throughout the economy. From the record set in September 2006, construction has shed 899,000 jobs, seasonally adjusted, or nearly 12 percent of the peak figure - the largest percentage decline of any sector in our economy. These numbers confirm what all of you know and feel in your gut. Times are as tough as any of us can remember.
A few months will have passed from the time this article was submitted until you read it, and we can only hope the picture looks a little better by then. At this writing Congress had finalized stimulus legislation that promises to spur a lot of construction once President Obama signs it into law, as he’s expected to do within days. Government and institutional building in particular should get a boost. Time will tell how many people get put back to work.
Most of you who have managed to hang on to your jobs up till now probably are very good at what you do. Employers tend to lay off the most dispensable people first and move on down the line. Yet as business conditions deteriorate, the cuts go deeper and competence by itself is not enough to guarantee employment. A lot of good people are sitting on the sidelines already, and more will join them if there’s not enough work to keep them busy.
Which raises a question: What can a person do to best protect his/her job? Acquiring top-notch job skills certainly is a top priority, but it’s not the only consideration. Truth of the matter is that worker skills can be plotted along a bell shaped curve. The poorest performers occupy one far end of the scale and outstanding employees the other. The remaining 80 percent or so occupy a big bulge in the middle, and when evaluating most people along that bulge, it’s hard to find a lot of difference. One person may be slightly better at one task, another better at something else. This complicates decisions about who to retain and who to let go.
Here’s where extraneous factors come into play. A popular employee may outlast someone whose attitude turns other people off. Team players who get along with co-workers have an advantage over those with disruptive tendencies, even if they may be a little less skilled overall. When this happens, you hear a lot of snide remarks about favoritism and “brown nosing.” To be sure, there are some people who are better at office and jobsite politics than doing the job they’re paid for, but another way to look at it is that alliance-building can be considered a job skill worth developing. Relationships do count, no matter what you do for a living.
Here are some of the ways you can make yourself more valuable as an employee beyond your job skills.
• Whiners are not winners. Morale naturally is going to take a hit when business is bad and friends lose their jobs; just don’t make it worse. Whiners sap energy from everyone around them. Find positive things to talk about, even if it’s only reminding everyone around you, “Hey, we still have a job!” When others start whining, move away. Tell them you’re too busy to get bogged down in negativity.
• Accept more work graciously. When a company trims the payroll, it usually increases the workload of those still employed. Accept this not only as the price of keeping your job, but as an opportunity to learn new skills, become more productive and enhance your value to the company. Sometimes the added workload is temporary. If it’s not and the burden is more than you can handle, talk to your supervisor about it, but don’t just complain. Look at it from the company’s perspective. Certain tasks need to be done and if you can’t do them, they will have to be given to someone else who may or may not handle them any better. Ask for detailed descriptions of the extra duties you are asked to perform. See if you can obtain more training. Ask the boss to identify priorities so you tackle the most important things first.
• Take initiative. Do not only accept more work, volunteer yourself for new projects and tasks that need to be done and perhaps are being neglected due to a short staff. Everyone likes a “go-getter,” especially during tough times. In particular, look to take charge of revenue generating opportunities wherever they might arise. Nothing will make you a hero more than finding profitable work.
• Be a team player. After a layoff, you may find yourself working with new work crews or departments. If you don’t know them very well, go out of your way to be friendly and forge alliances. Ask them questions about what they do and how you can make their jobs easier. Socialize during lunch breaks or after hours. People are naturally leery of newcomers, so try to fit in as part of the team sooner rather than later.
• Be helpful. Part of being a team player is not only doing your job well and without complaint, but helping others to improve. Just as you may have to take on additional duties after a layoff, others around you may end up doing unfamiliar work. Be a mentor, and lend a helping hand if you know things they don’t.
• Ask what you can do to increase company fortunes. Everyone knows when things aren’t going well. Have a heart-to-heart with the company owner or your supervisor and ask straight away what you can do to keep your job and become more valuable to the company. They may suggest things you’ve never thought about.