Even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, you never know when your job could be lost. Perhaps it's already gone. Now that the U.S. unemployment rate is topping the 7 percent mark, what career counselors call "positioning yourself for change" takes on new relevance. You need to prepare to make a job transition whether the change is by force or choice. And, for most people, job change means networking.
"Eighty percent of all jobs are offered to someone who knows someone -- the applicant didn't come in cold," says Vincent Zirpoli, president of Mega Marketing, the Timonium-based management consulting firm that assists both job seekers and employers in the match-making process which our society calls "hiring."
To some, "networking" is a difficult concept. This is especially true for introverts or people who have worked in technical arenas that don't involve much outreach to the public.
Picture an engineer who has been severed from a long-time job in which he was working principally with computers or other machinery. Tell him he must embark on a blitz of telephone calling to build a network of contacts, and he'll be mortified, says Ann Wolfe, a vice president at the Baltimore office of Drake Beam Morin, the outplacement firm.
"For these people, the telephone is so hard to pick up that we call it 'the 10,000-pound telephone,' " Ms. Wolfe says.
However, networking is essential for most people seeking to return to a work force in which opportunities are scarce, says Charles R. White, president of White Ridgely Associates and Success Management, a career and outplacement firm based in Baltimore.
"Networking is better than not working," Mr. White quips.
The networking you've heard about all these years takes finesse and perseverance, according to career coaches. Ideally, you build your contacts in good times and bad. Ideally, you don't wait until your career hits a snag before you call friends or friends-of-friends in your field.
When you encounter a career problem -- or decide to make a switch -- your contacts will be ripe and ready to help you. You'll already have developed the relationships with those you need most.
"The principle of the cultivation process in networking is very much like the farmer who cultivates his crops. The farmer plants seeds and, over time, the majority of those seeds germinate and bear fruit," says Mr. Zirpoli of Mega Marketing.
If you're out of work, you must build your resource network under circumstances that are less ideal than if you're still employed and have more time for cultivation. But either way, you may be able to use these pointers offered by career specialists:
*Conduct a comprehensive job search involving preliminary "informational interviews" first before you see the decision makers who actually hire.
The idea here is to meet with a wide array of contacts in various organizations who can give you the grounding, leads and referrals that can ultimately get you to the actual decision makers, says John A. Stevens, a senior vice president at the Baltimore office of Drake Beam Morin Inc.
When you approach people on the outer rings of your circle, make it clear you are only seeking advice, not an actual job. "Tell them you'd like 20 minutes on their calendar for input into your job search and that you don't expect them to give you a job," Mr. Stevens advises.
*Don't get elevated expectations for any one interview.
"A problem people have is that they set their hopes too high and when they're not offered a job, they feel rejected and despondent," Mr. Zirpoli says.
Many good things can come out of an interview in addition to a job. You can get important information about a company or industry for which you would like to work. You can get leads on jobs elsewhere. Or you can get the names of others who could help you as you extend the net you've cast.
*Give yourself a "curbstone critique" after each interview.
Once the interview is over, it's time to ask yourself how you did relative to your goals. "Ask yourself, 'Did I identify the needs of the organization?' and 'Did I tell how my skills could address those needs?' " counsels Mr. Zirpoli of Mega Marketing.
*Send an immediate thank-you note after each interview.
Not only are good manners crucial in the networking process, but the desire to say thanks is a good excuse for a follow-up letter to the contact you met face-to-face. "It's all part of the cultivation process," Mr. Zirpoli says.
If people give you the names of others, it's also common courtesy to follow up with a note or phone call to tell them what resulted from the contacts they provided you. People who are anxious to help should be rewarded and, at the minimum, should be given the satisfaction of knowing what happened as a consequence of their suggestions, he says.
*Keep your name in front of an employer's face.