Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Revving a Career While It's in Neutral

With prospects for new jobs or promotions still looking grim, many workers are struggling to take their careers to the next level. Some, though, have found ways to cope and make themselves more marketable for when companies start hiring again.

"You don't have to be stuck," says Dory Hollander, a workplace psychologist and founder of WiseWorkplaces, a career coaching and executive-development firm based in Arlington, Va. "You can be an active player in shaping your own future."

Indeed, there are a number of ways workers can bolster their résumés in preparation for when the job market ramps up. These include volunteering to gain new skills, building a wider network of contacts and moving into a parallel position within their company.

One of the reasons many people may be feeling like their careers are at a standstill: decreasing voluntary turnover. Between January and November of 2009, 19.6 million workers quit their jobs, an amount fewer than any during that period since the U.S. Labor Department began tracking the data in 2000.

"To get a promotion, somebody has to leave," says Steve Gross, a senior consultant for New York-based consulting firm Mercer LLC. But fewer "people are quitting and [fewer] people are retiring."

What's more, many workers didn't receive pay increases last year, and some even saw their salaries shrink. Of 555 large and midsize U.S. employers polled by consulting company Hewitt Associates Inc. in October, 48% said they froze wages in 2009 and another 10% cut salaries. And while many firms expect to reinstate raises this year, the average increase will be just 2.5%, the second-lowest level on record, reports Hewitt. The worst year for raises: 2009, when salaries dipped to 1.8%.

Once the economy improves, some 60% of more than 900 U.S. workers surveyed between October and November 2009 said they plan to pursue new job opportunities, reports Right Management, a talent and career-management consulting firm in Philadelphia.

Meghan Stinton felt her career had hit a wall early last year while she was working as an event and fund-raising coordinator for a national nonprofit's Denver branch. After a colleague was laid off in March, the 25-year-old says she had to do that person's job—program coordinator—on top of hers, despite not being given a raise or title promotion.

She kept her eyes open, but says she never saw any positions in her field open up above her at the organization. She also looked for jobs at other nonprofits but failed to find anything that matched her skill set and background. "I was pretty much at a standstill," she says.

Ms. Stinton decided to make the most of her situation. She began doing volunteer work in public relations—a field she wanted to move into—for three nonprofits that weren't hiring. She also joined two trade groups to expand her network, including the Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce.

Later, when a manager position opened up in the chamber's public-relations department, she applied by emailing her résumé to the membership director—one of several staffers she got to know on a first-name basis from networking. She landed the job in December, increasing her annual income by 20% to $32,000.

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