The message is hard to miss: It's a grim job market. The latest marker came when the government reported that employers shed 159,000 jobs in September, far more than expected. That was the worst one-month drop in more than five years, and brings the number of jobs that have disappeared this year to 760,000.

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WASHINGTON — The message is hard to miss: It’s a grim job market.

The latest marker came when the government reported that employers shed 159,000 jobs in September, far more than expected. That was the worst one-month drop in more than five years, and brings the number of jobs that have disappeared this year to 760,000.

Even a top-notch performance may not be enough to save your job. The layoff lists are full of people who turned in first-rate work yet didn’t survive the cut.

Though job security may be unattainable, resiliency can be yours. Become the employee who’s kept on despite layoffs. Or at least make sure you have the skills and contacts necessary to make a pink slip your springboard to a better job.

You’ll need to build a foundation of cutting-edge skills, personal likability — and, not least, a well-nurtured network of contacts.

James Thomas is a master of the art of networking. He has worked in the human-relations field for about 30 years, most recently as executive vice president of human resources and administration for WebMethods, a suburban information technology company.

But not even a background in HR can vaccinate you against unemployment. When a German company acquired WebMethods in 2007, Thomas lost his job. He turned to his extensive network, which has provided him with consulting work as he remains open to the possibility of other employment.

Thomas’ strategy: “Seek people who are truly strategic-network connections with you, who clearly understand how you have branded yourself.”

By “strategic network,” Thomas refers specifically to people in a position to help with your career. “Of all the people you know, maybe 20 percent fall into that strategic network, those who have your interests in mind, the 20 percent who truly can broaden your opportunities for success,” he said.

Building a network

Thomas builds his network by joining organizations and broadly contributing his expertise. He serves on the boards of a number of business and community organizations, for example. “Nonprofit boards are easier to get on,” he said. “And they want professional people to get involved.”

All sorts of organizations can help build your network as you help others. Charity, religious and service organizations such as the Lions and Rotary clubs offer opportunities.

Thomas’ networking extends to the virtual world, as well. “LinkedIn [the business equivalent of the Facebook online social network] is one I’m very impressed with,” Thomas said. “Many search executives are using LinkedIn to contact people they don’t know.”

John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a firm that companies hire to counsel the people they’re laying off, also likes LinkedIn. “I think of LinkedIn as kind of the Rolodex squared,” he said. “Each of the 100 people I know knows 100 people. All of a sudden, you know 10,000 people, plus you have their résumé, plus other information. It speeds our relationship-building. I think it’s a paradigm-changing thing in my life.”

To keep yourself attractive, you need to stay on top of not only the skills required in your field but also your computer and Internet skills. “You want always to be one step ahead of someone else,” said Lisa Stern, director of operations for the MontgomeryWorks one-stop workforce center in suburban Montgomery County, Md.

It’s not only that many job applications are now accepted only online, said Stern, but employers are now much more demanding about the skills expected from new hires.

Consider Carolyn, who last year, at 50, lost her customer-service job to a younger employee who already had the computer and Internet skills in which Carolyn expected she would be trained.

Through MontgomeryWorks, which offers intensive services such as career counseling and free job training, Carolyn received free classes on popular Internet programming tools such as Dreamweaver Web-page design software and HTML. She accepted a job in public relations for a nonprofit firm in December.

“I could have ended up [dependent] on the public somehow,” said Carolyn, who spoke on condition that her last name not be used in the interest of maintaining her professional image. “My unemployment had run out.” She calls such training assistance “investing in the future.”

Employees need to continually reinvest in their futures, whether they qualify for government help or have to pay the tab on their own. Community colleges offer courses and certifications that can help keep career skills up to date. You can search for community colleges and other training programs through a Web site sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, The site links to a variety of valuable services, including searches for local one-stop career centers and state-run job banks.

Be the one to keep

You might be excused for thinking up-to-date skills and good performance will keep you employed. But that’s just the beginning of your labors, said Stephen Viscusi, author of the new book “Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out on Top at Work” (Collins Business, $20). You need to make sure you are the employee the boss most wants to keep.

Viscusi said some high performers are also high-maintenance divas, tolerated despite the headaches they cause. The guy who grouses all the time or doesn’t get along with others? He’s first to go. “They’ve been wanting to get rid of him. They’ve been looking for an excuse,” said Viscusi, who runs a headhunting business for the interior-furnishings industry.

In sometimes crude terms, his book spells out the particulars of effective ingratiation. “It’s all about creating the illusion of working hard and getting along with your boss, and a little old-fashioned … brown-nosing,” he said.

His four-part strategy — be visible, be easy, be useful, be ready — is equal parts Mom and Machiavelli. It’s not always what you want to hear.

How to become visible? Give up telecommuting. Note that most of the talk you hear about working from home to save gas comes from people who do not sign your paycheck. “It’s easy to fire somebody you’re sending an e-mail to,” he said. Make sure you get to the office five minutes ahead of the boss and stay five minutes later.

Be easy? Cut the diva act. Don’t whine about your cubicle. You might even consider offering to renegotiate your salary down. “Especially if you’re over 40 or earn more than $100,000,” Viscusi added, noting that a pay reduction could cost you far less than an extended period of unemployment.

Be useful? Offer to take on jobs your boss dislikes, such as training others. “Just be smart enough to be sure you’re not training your replacement,” he warns. Older workers can mentor newcomers; newcomers can “reverse-mentor” their bosses, especially on mastering new Web applications. Viscusi calls recipients of mentoring “your sleeper cell of support and intelligence seeded throughout the company.”

Be ready? Be ready to move on if opportunities look better. Keep a résumé, cloaked so your current employer doesn’t recognize you, posted on online employment sites. Set alerts on Google, Yahoo and Technorati (a search engine for blogs) for the names of your bosses, your company and its competitors. You’ll get first word of news that eventually will affect you.

“You have to be on alert in these times. It’s not to say you should work yourself to death, but over the next 18 months, you may not be able to take that two- or three-week vacation,” Viscusi said.