Great Depression food line

22 July 2020

Hard Truths For Hard Times: How To Find A Job During A Recession-Pandemic

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Professional Who’s Been There, Survived That; photo of a Great Depression food line outside an establishment created by gangster Al Capone…

This makes four.

Over the course of my 30-year career, I’ve survived three other recessions:

  • 1990-1991 — The inevitable collapse of Reaganomics. (Borrow, borrow, borrow… wait, we have to pay it back?)
  • 2000-2001 — The first dotcom bust — the most painful one for me. I was riding high as a web nerd, then hit bottom. I even got rejected for a bookstore job because I didn’t have any retail experience.
  • 2007-2009 — The Great Recession thanks to subprime mortgages. (You MUST watch The Big Short.)

And, lo, here we go again, this time courtesy of our little friend COVID-19… plus gross inequality… and overpriced housing… and a narcissistic troglodyte in the White House… and, oops, that’s not what this post it about.

This post addresses finding a job in an economic downturn — something I have too much experience in. Of course, this does mark my first encounter with a recession-pandemic, which makes job hunting a tad more complicated. But the following survival tips still apply (just wear a mask to your job interview).

Before we dive into the job hunting tips, let’s talk lifestyle choices.

  • Assume a downturn can only get worse. There’s no such thing as a “floor,” especially when a narcissistic troglodyte is calling the shots. Indeed, some economists are predicting a second great depression.
  • Cut unnecessary expenditures. I know your heart (and appetite) wants to support your neighborhood bistros, but unless your last name is Bezos, discover the low cost of cooking your own meals. Plus, eating at home reduces your chances of needing an oxygen tank two weeks later. Sure, if everyone were to eat at home, restaurants would go bust… which they might do anyway… but leave the charity shopping to the ultra-rich, who have enjoyed 40 years of tax breaks and kleptocracy.
  • Reduce your housing costs. Housing likely constitutes the biggest expense in most adult budgets. Given that you’re working from home, no reason to spend a third of your income (or more) on an apartment in a neighborhood where most attractions are closed. Indeed, you might find a nicer pad in a city far, far away… where attractions might actually be open.
  • Seek happiness not in possessions but in personal relationships. Sure, you’ll have to Zoom them, but those connections will easily make-up for all the restaurant meals you couldn’t eat and all the shiny new toys you couldn’t buy.

OK, now that you’ve shifted your values and cut your expenditures, time for the other side of the equation: juicing the income.

Job Hunting Tip 1: Forget pride and prejudice — take any legal gigs you can get.

During the dotcom bust, I worked for a catering company serving drinks at weddings. Yes, romance perseveres during recessions, and the wealthy still stage blowout parties. So despite my pride in my experience and education, I took the catering gig. And while Chip and Buffy tied the knot, I earned $200 in base-plus-tips over four hours I would have otherwise spent feeling sorry for myself.

And, no, I didn’t put it on my resume — “include all your jobs on your resume” is a lie perpetrated by hiring agents who want easy ways to reject people.

Speaking of resume, you might have to dumb yours down to land the entry-level gigs. For example, no restaurant wants to hire a former restaurant owner to wait tables — true story I heard from a friend — because they don’t want a know-it-all server telling them what to do. On my dotcom-bust resume for side gigs, I replaced my college degree with a list of extension-school courses I had taken.

And forget passion — pursuing your passion is bad advice during good times, a death sentence during a recession. (More on that in a future post.) Take any job that doesn’t entice the FBI or DEA to wiretap your phone.

That means even if you have a graduate degree and executive-level talent, open your options to paid internships, temp gigs, and independent contractor work. When recessions end, the interns, temps, and contractors are perfectly poised to fill full-time openings.

Job Hunting Tip 2: Network, because most job openings never get advertised.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had two companies ask me for talent referrals, and I helped fill both vacancies. Neither opening was advertised, because job ads get swamped with hundreds of applications, and no one wants to read all those resumes from complete strangers. During a recession, it’s far easier to get trustworthy talent by asking trusted connections.

So connect with alumni in the companies where you want to work, plus others who can recommend you.

Even if you’re not seeking a job now, network before you need it. The way this economy looks, you’ll need the relationships, if not for yourself, then for your friends, colleagues, family, students, and alumni connections. Be the solidly employed person who spends the next few years helping others find solid employment.

Job Hunting Tip 3: Follow the money.

Follow the news regarding startup funding. During recessions, VC’s can score far more bang for their buck since entrepreneurs feel desperate. And once entrepreneurs get the cash, they start staffing up to look hot and happening. (Appearances are everything in the startup world.) You’ll find funding announcements in business publications (which you’re reading every single day, right?), Crunchbase, and LinkedIn.

Beyond startups, consider who might thrive during a recession-pandemic, such as video games, home delivery, and household cleaning supplies. In addition, follow the stock market to see who is growing modestly. Beware of bubble brands surging far beyond what their financials warrant — particularly if they’ve never turned a profit. (Hi, Uber!) They will likely be the first to pop in a market crash.

Job Hunting Tip 4: Avoid vulnerable industries and companies.

Consider who might decline given the double dose of disease and downturn. Travel, restaurants, and live entertainment always take huge hits during recessions, even ones that don’t feature a killer virus.

In addition, 2020 job seekers won’t have much luck in higher education (many colleges are in trouble) or local government. And since many marketers slash their budgets during a recession (not a smart move, but they do it anyway), most ad agencies and ad-supported media are forced to cut (but see the opportunity in the next tip).

In addition, don’t bother with companies on the verge of being acquired or merged, or that were recently part of an acquisition or merger. They will likely shed jobs in the name of “efficiency” (which happens even during good times).

Job Hunting Tip 5: Subcontract.

During a recession, ad agencies and marketing consultancies accept the small client projects they used to decline. At the same time, they don’t want to staff up with full timers to do the work. Indeed, they might be letting full timers go. (Many companies use economic downturns to unload employees they don’t want, particularly higher-salaried older professionals, since it’s harder for the victims to prove wrongful termination.)

So this is where freelancers and small agencies come in. Someone has do the work, so why not pay a freelancer or subcontractor a fraction of what the small client is paying?

The agencies won’t advertise for these freelancers and subcontractors — they don’t want to alert the full timers they just laid off. And they definitely don’t want to alert the small clients who just paid them for big-agency-caliber work. Instead, they’ll tap their network for referrals.

If you want to subcontract, DO NOT CONTACT HR (a waste of time even during strong economies). Instead, contact account supervisors and creative directors, and network with alumni in those agencies.

Parting Shot

A marketer I greatly admire, Martin Weigel, the Head of Planning at Weiden+Kennedy Amsterdam, just wrote an insightful and inspiring article, “Hope Is An Axe.” While it contains a litany of dire and depressing stats,  Weigel notes, “Yet amidst the fragility and carnage, the suffering and the fear, the anxiety and dislocation and the endless vistas of existential angst… we can, we must, still hope.”

Key to that hope is understanding that you’re not alone — far from it, even though all this quarantining and social distancing might make you feel that way. And key to that hope is reaching out to others and making strong connections. Real connections.

That means forget the follower and connection counts on social media (mostly fakery and pretension foisted upon us by this past decade). Time to forge high quality relationships with people who might actually help you — and more importantly, who you can help. Prove your value not through resumes but through relationships.

Those relationships can help you not just survive this recession, but actually thrive when it’s finally over.

P.S. To make sure we all survive this recession and beyond, please vote — and get your friends to vote. It’s time to send the troglodytes back to their caves.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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