How to Find a Job In This Crap Economy [Ask an Expert]

Allison Hemming is no stranger to the unemployment parade. In the ’90s, after she watched many of her friends get axed in the dot com burst, her answer to the chaos was to start the original, now legendary Pink Slip Parties, where people could console each other, get blasted, but most importantly, professionally network. Allison has since risen up to start the Hired Guns, a very successful talent agency that places creative professionals in high profile positions. (She also wrote Work it! How to Get Ahead, Save your Ass and Land a Job in any Economy!.) Who more perfect for us to ask what to do in a downturn?

Flavorwire: How does this economic downturn compare with the dot com crash?

Allison Hemming: This economic downturn has been carnage for NYC. I don’t believe we have seen the worst of it. We’re hearing a ton about Wall Street, but publishing and Madison Avenue are also getting hit hard. During the dot com crash, digital took it on the chin. The industry thinned out [but] it got stealthier, smarter. The reason why digital is faring much better right now is that and the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Also we’re seeing more activity than we have in months just now. Spring is here and you can only keep New Yorkers pent up for so long. People are craving purpose. It’s the New York way. Our freelance business is way up.

FW: Can you tell us about your famous “pink slip” parties?

AH: It was June 2000. The stock market had tanked. I was bored and working alone in my apartment while completing the business plan for my company, The Hired Guns. A few talented friends lost their jobs at the dot coms they were working at, so, I decided to throw a “dotcommiseration” happy hour for everyone. About twenty people showed. Then it was forty. Then there was a line to get in that wrapped around the corner. APNews.com was the first complete company shutdown and everyone else followed. I’ll never forget when CNN showed up. The news crews were everywhere. We threw a Christmas Party for all the people who didn’t have one that year. We dressed in our dot com schwag and ended up in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair. I wore a big pink wig. At the one-year mark, we brought in a live band and got them to sing songs that the pink slippers sourced online. REM’s “It’s the End of the World”, was the most requested. I guess because back then it felt a lot like it was. Over the four years we ran the party, hundreds of people found jobs. It was a cool, new economy way of connecting people and still is. Also, we never charged people to come in. I thought that was important. The Pink Slip Party idea gave power back to the people. Made them realize that getting laid off wasn’t their fault, that they don’t have to hide at home and be embarrassed. Today, Pink Slip Parties have popped up all over the world. They’ve morphed. They are now owned by the people. I like that.

FW: Monster and Craigslist seem like employment wastelands these days. Where else should I be looking for a gig?

AH: Well it really depends on what you want to do. Industry blogs are starting to launch job boards these days. For instance, PaidContent.org rocks. It’s a great read. Smart employers know that a great place to advertise jobs is in front of talent that’s engaged in reading up on the industry. This may sound cheesy but the other place you should be looking is actually in the mirror. As scary as it sounds, it’s a great time to start a company. While people are scratching to get back into the mother ships that cast them out, be contrarian and become a satellite to that same mothership. If you play your cards right and succeed, you may just earn more than you ever would as an employee with the added bonus of being your own boss. Be brave!

FW: How do you avoid sticker shock when you go from working at a big company to working on your own and paying for your own insurance?

AH: The Freelancer’s Union is my number one pick. We’ve been working with them for the last decade. Tons of our Hired Guns use this insurance plan. The best part about them is that they not only offer insurance but they also are advocates for freelancer issues. They’re duking it out on policy issues like the exorbitant taxes freelancers pay, every day. They live by the “don’t be evil” ethos. The real trick to managing insurance though, is to do a quick back of the envelope calculation to figure out what hourly fee you should be tacking onto the hourly rate you need to earn, so that you’re covering the costs of your own insurance. It’s really easy. Let’s say you’re paying $400 a month in COBRA. There are 4 weeks in a month, or 160 hours (at a 40 hour work week). So divide 160 into $400 = $2.50. To cover at least your monthly insurance costs, tack on $2.50/hour. You should be adding that into any hourly rate you’re negotiating

FW: Any tips on how I can position myself to keep my job while I’m watching my co-workers fall like dominoes?

AH: When layoff rumors hit, everyone thinks that their head is on the block. There may be a 10 percent headcount reduction, but 90 percent of the company will keep their jobs. Those are decent odds. Of course, you need to pay attention. Are you in a role that’s going the way of the do-do? Are sales in your division cratering? Even Google had layoffs in some divisions (but they hired in others as they focused on the future not the past!). What won’t work is keeping your head down. Now more than ever you need to focus on over-delivering, bringing your ideas to the forefront. Let your co-workers freak out (or better yet get caught surfing Craigslist at work) — you have work to do!

FW: Where would you recommend a man on a mission for a paycheck go to network with potential employers during social hours?

AH: First I would make a short list of the companies I most want to work at. Then I’d figure out if I knew anyone via my online social networks who are connected to these companies in any way and reach out to them. If I didn’t know anyone directly, I’d try the six degrees of separation thing (LinkedIn.com rules for this), and ask friends of friends to help me out with a connection. Next, I’d build an action plan for each company. I’d use my now expanded network (another major benefit of this exercise) in order to develop a map of the post-work watering holes for each of these companies. I would ask my connections to alert me the next time they were having a night out and ask if they’d be my networking wingman. The night of — we’d belly up to the bar, and in an informal way, I’d get intro’d to my future co-workers. Networking takes work and recon. The real secret to networking is that you have to start before you need it — and remember to give before you receive.

FW: Getting laid off may not have been that bad. I hated what I did for a living but now how do I figure out what’s next? Any advice on how to change my career?

AH: I’ve been working on that exact scenario for a portion of a class I’ll be giving for The Hired Guns. In it, I’ll be encouraging people to DeLorean themselves back to the future in order to visit their retired selves. Since we’ll all be working until we’re 80 it’s quite a useful exercise. Once there, we travel back job by job until we get to the present day. This exercise is about job and lifestyle visualization. I’ll use myself as an example: For me it’s forget Florida, bring on the Green Mountain state. I love everything Vermont stands for so someday I’ll live there. My goal is to find a liberal arts college [in Vermont] so that I can integrate a new breed of career management right into their curriculum. I’m thinking students graduate with an expertise in their major but they have no idea how to stay employed for life and land their dream job. I know how to fix this, and I’m going to take my idea and get it actualized. At the same time, I also plan on convincing Jake Burton to start a snowboard line for the Golden Girls set (“Hey Jake — you should see the ideas I have for my Boomin’ Granny gear”). I love snowboarding but arthritis runs in my family and I want to make sure that I can snowboard until they rip the thing out of my “…cold, dead hands”. Once you’ve named your goals (retire to Vermont, integrate career management into college curriculum, snowboard my brains out), you then create a road map between where you are today and what you ultimately want to do, naming the potential roles you need to land. There are probably many roads for getting there, and it’s worth it and fun to explore them. The amazing thing though is that once you’ve set a quasi-direction, you start to see the difference between the right and wrong next job, and how your choices will put you in line for that job after the job.

FW: I was canned but got an offer for significantly less from another company. Do I jump on it or wait it out for something better?

AH: It depends. Here’s where naming your retirement job and working backwards really pays off. Let’s put compensation aside for the moment. Ask yourself: Does this new job fit into my grand plan? By taking it will it make me more competitive or less? Will [this job] help me land my next gig? What skills, and new tricks will I gain from the new role? Will taking this job put you in line to land the next step toward your goal or will it be a distraction, taking you further away from your ultimate goal? If you answered positively to most of these, then it might be worth it to suck it up and take the pay cut. Think of it like bartering, you’re getting paid some money and the rest in trade for skills you didn’t have before. Heck, you can always moonlight to make up the difference. One last thing, if you’re going to take a salary cut, you’d better love and know you can learn from your new boss. Otherwise, move on.

FW: The city where I live has dried up completely on the employment side. What cities have been affected the least by the job-crunch?

AH: Like Mr. Smith, go to Washington. DC is like the great American gold-rush, stimulus style. Next, follow what industries are scoring major stimulus bucks. For example, Green Tech is slated to get a lot of cashish, so why not don a green collar and move to a progressive city. Keep in mind, these companies touch just about every role there is — from sales and marketing and creative and technology. And don’t forget, you can build your own business plan, and attract some of these dollars for little old you. Be brave, not slow.

FW: What if I actually was not a victim of the recession and my boss was just a dick? What do I tell the next employer about why I left the last job?

AH: Channel your inner Zen and leave that bad boss baggage behind. Focus instead on what you achieved at the last company and how it will translate well to your new job.

FW: Is it bad form to ask if you can have your job back if the economy takes an up-turn as you are being fired?

AH: Assuming you didn’t get laid off because of poor performance, it’s never bad form to ask for your old job back after the economy improves. The question is do you want it back? In fact, you might want to offer yourself up as a freelancer, the moment you get laid off. Companies often cut deep, and then realize no one is left to do the work. If you negotiate this on your way out, you could end up earning more per hour than if you stayed on as a salaried employee, all the while adding flexibility to your day. What’s the downside to asking? Nothing!

FW: On that note is it bad form to beg not to be fired?

AH: I’ve never gotten this question, but in general, begging is unlikely to get you anywhere. If the head honcho has made up his mind about terminating you, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to change it. Instead of groveling, I’d focus my attention on getting additional severance, outplacement and an extension of healthcare before you have to pay for COBRA on your own. And, as a wise employment lawyer once said, get those expenses in!

FW: Will you hire me? Pleasplesepleasepleaseplease?

AH: Hit me with your updated resume, and let’s talk!

For more information about The Hired Guns and Hired Gun classes and events they can be reached online here.