Stop Being a Victim of Your Company!

In the New York Times this past weekend, Alina Tugend told the story of three friends who had suffered unemployment–twice–in “Laid Off More Than Once, And Seeking a Career.”

One of Tugend’s friends lost two Wall Street jobs, one during a merger and another during a corporate restructuring.

Another friend lost her editing position when the magazine where she worked closed in 2007, freelanced full time for a year, then got hired by another magazine–and in 2010 got laid off again during a wave of downsizing. “I started thinking I was not going to be able to stay in journalism,” the friend told Tugend. Tugend’s pal ended up getting a job at another magazine, though it’s one she doesn’t love. (For the stories of how Elaine and Elizabeth transitioned out of full-time media jobs to freelancing, see our posts 5 Rules For A Successful Freelance Startup and The Double Life).

The third of Tugend’s friends, Shane Fischer, a Florida lawyer, got laid off twice because of lack of work at two separate legal firms–and then decided to become a solo practitioner. He seemed like the happiest of the bunch. “It’s a struggle but at the end of the day, when I work hard, I know I’m working hard for me and I don’t have to justify why I didn’t bring in 10 percent more to a senior partner,” he told Tugend. “I’m actually grateful those old employers let me go.”

When I read articles like this, I’m struck by the pain that people who view themselves as employees suffer in an economy where many industries are rapidly changing.

Because they equate a successful career with having a traditional job with a big employer, they walk around with a sense of defeat when a position proves to be impermanent–even if the layoff has nothing to do with them. While they may use freelancing as a stopgap, it’s seen as a less desirable alternative to a job.

Meanwhile, instead of taking Shane Fischer’s route to economic independence, they keep on using the same strategy to build financial stability back into their lives: They apply for the same types of jobs they had in the past–only to suffer layoffs again because their industry is experiencing major turbulence.

If this has been happening to you or to professionals in many firms in your industry, it may be time to start rethinking your career. You may not have to stop doing work you love in the future, but you will probably have to look for other ways to do it.

Long-term jobs with benefits are fading away in many industries–which are migrating to an increasingly global business model that includes more contingent workers, or seeing rapid technological change that reduces the need for a large workforce. Sure, plummy full-time gigs will still exist for some people, but not for as many as there were before. And who will companies choose to fill those coveted spots? It’s often going to be young, smart people in their thirties with no excessive salary demands. Folks at that level know enough to be competent in their fields but don’t come with medical problems and dependents to ratchet up the company’s healthcare costs.

Learning how to freelance is a hedge against these market forces. In many fields, there’s still more work available than the existing full-timers can do. But an employer isn’t likely to hire a new person, if say, there’s only enough of that work to keep someone busy 50% of the time. Companies would rather hire a temp, consultant or freelancer until demand picks up.

If you’re feeling like your company is in turmoil or doesn’t appreciate you, my suggestion is to take a few hours this week to start lining up some freelance projects that don’t pose a conflict of interest. Winning freelance jobs doesn’t happen overnight. Even after 20 years in journalism, I only secured 3 assignments my first three months, because it took some time to market myself–and for the folks I contacted to find  appropriate projects to farm out to me. It took a while to build a full-time business. (See our post on How I Landed My First Gig: A Cautionary Tale).

But if you start now, you’ll be able to make some progress toward greater economic independence. The $200KFreelancer offers a lot of information on how to get started. Once you’ve built a few freelance relationships, keep them going, even if you have to keep them on the back burner. This will change your whole mindset about work. You will have less of a feeling that you’re walking on eggshells at work, lest someone in power decide that you’ll be the next one to go if there’s a need for cost cutting. You’ll have a way to make some money immediately if you do get laid off. You will be exposed to other professionals who see your value (and may even want to hire you away, if you’re still inclined to want a full time job).  And it’ll give you some practice for running a business as a freelancer or independent professional, in case that proves to be your best option in the future.

Freelancing isn’t a cushy solution. It doesn’t come with the bragging rights to senior level job at a company that everyone at a cocktail party will  know. But it’s a very viable way to make a living now–and it can be lucrative, if you’re serious about it. Better yet, your job security depends on one person: You.




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