With job cuts expected to continue, more workers are ramping up their networking efforts, trying to build relationships in these bleak times.

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Samantha Fitzgerald, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tax attorney and mother of two, wants to make the right networking connections. But 2-½-hour business lunches consume too much of her day, and evening programs cut into family time.

Fitzgerald says she has become selective in choosing groups. “I give an organization a certain amount of time, and if doesn’t work, I move on.”

With job cuts expected to continue, more workers are ramping up their networking efforts, trying to build relationships in these bleak times. Of course, widening circles isn’t easy when our free time already is limited. But the financial climate requires us to shake off our unease and schmooze effectively.

Experts say if you think you don’t have time to network, think again. Networking is one of the most profitable activities that can be incorporated into everyday life. The 103,000 members of BNI, the country’s largest networking group, have made more than 5.5 million referrals valued at more than $2.2 billion, the group says.

Career experts say creating and maintaining contacts should be strategic and focused. It is all about developing relationships with people who can advance your career or business rather than just collecting business cards. That determines which groups to join.

Picking your contacts

“It’s about knowing what you want to catch,” says John Remson, a legal marketing specialist. Remson tells his clients to make a list of 15 people they want to meet or get to know better and figure out where those people hang out. Once you meet them, he advises, “stay on their radar screen.” Doing that requires touching base with them at least once a quarter, he says.

To foster relationship-building, he advises going beyond membership events or a random lunch meeting. “Distinguish yourself by being actively involved.” Becoming program coordinator or membership chair will put you in positions to meet people who could hire you or refer you business. He cautions that this takes a time commitment: “You are trying to cultivate relationships where people trust you; you can’t rush that.”

Professional networker Jeff Meshel, who has more than 5,000 names in his contact list, argues that effective schmoozing can be done with a few existing acquaintances in various businesses. He suggests getting together with a small group once a month. Make a shift in the way you think. “When you meet people, you are not only going to initiate your agenda but help the others [in the group].”

With limited time to network, attorney Fitzgerald went that route. She joined a professional resource group of 10 that meets for one hour midday, twice a month. “The idea is to refer each other business,” she says.

What’s your goal?

Of course, the most time-efficient way to network varies by jobs and purpose. Do you want to make career connections within your profession, win new business or gain name recognition?

If you want to become more visible in the community, volunteering connects you with people who share your passion and can position you to meet key leaders. Remember: People need to know you, like you and trust you in order to refer you, and demonstrating commitment to a cause can help.

Mike Macedonio, co-author of “Truth or Delusion, Busting Networking’s Biggest Myths,” says regardless of purpose, there are no shortcuts to networking. It requires a plan. “Most people think too broadly and join too many random groups.”

Macedonio recommends spending about five hours a week on networking and limiting participation to no more than three groups, including online social networks. “It’s less about meeting new people than having them remember you after the fact.”

When cardiac surgeon Mercedes Dullum, of South Florida, circulates, she wants camaraderie with other female physicians. “I like to learn about what my colleagues are doing and share stories.” Dullum belongs to the Women’s Professional Staff Association at Cleveland Clinic in Weston, Fla. Mingling with female doctors has benefited her career: “They understand what I’m doing and are more apt to seek my advice.”

A huge networking mistake is collecting business cards and shoving them in a drawer, says Meshel, who authored “One Phone Call Away, Secrets of a Master Networker.” He suggests organizing cards into a network relationship database and following up.

He believes effective networking culminates in mutual success. “Create opportunities for other people and at the end of the day, it comes back to you.”