Hard work and being a team player may not be the qualities that get you your next job, according to Jack Heyden, a partner at the aptly named Gray Hair Management, a networking firm for older workers. The key to getting a new job after middle age is to explain how your past job performance improved the bottom line of the company, says Heyden, who was president of a banking association for 13 years until he was laid off in 1999 as part of a merger at age 53. He is the coauthor of Winning the Job Race: Pathways Through Transition with his equally gray-haired partner, Scott Kane. I called Heyden at his Deerfield, Ill., office to ask him what advice he has for older workers who find themselves suddenly jobless in a slow economy. Excerpts:
If you find yourself unexpectedly laid off after age 50, what should you do?
You have to take a quick step back and evaluate yourself in terms of professional strengths and weaknesses as a person. Articulate your value by putting together the paperwork necessary to go out and get a job—a résumé. Most people, they don't do a very good job of articulating their value. In order to do that, you have to look back at the jobs you've had and figure out what you did that added value to the business you worked for. Too often people [give] their job description rather than the end results they were able to deliver. If you suspect that there might be layoffs at your company, what are some things you can do to be ready, just in case?
If you start getting concerned about layoffs, figure out what kind of value you have been bringing to the company you currently work for. Most people sit down and tell me about the last couple of performance reviews. Figure out how you measure the actual value that you are bringing to the person who signs your check. Hard work, being a team player is not going to get you your next job. The only reason you are going to get your next job is most likely that you convince someone that you are the solution to the problem that the hiring manager is facing. Find out what value did the company get out of your work. Did it enable them to reduce customer complaints, respond to customers faster, close cases faster? Can you say I got a 12-month project done in nine months and under budget? It's hard to find those things out after you are laid off. In a down economy, are there specific job-hunting strategies you should be using?
In a down economy you are going to have more people competing for potentially less jobs. It's nice to think we've got the Internet, and you should use it to apply for jobs. You've got to connect to your personal network of people before you get axed. It's always easier establishing those networking contacts while you are still working and maybe you can help them. Find a company that has the types of problems that you are best at fixing. You were laid off as part of a merger. How did you cope with that?
All those résumés I was sending out didn't get too much traction. I had to start meeting new people and use the people that I knew to try to meet more people. The key is trying to get those introductions without trying to turn it into a job interview. If you're looking to meet new people and they don't have a job for you, sending your résumé may actually turn a lot of people off. If someone doesn't really have a specific job for you, rather than trying to turn the meeting into a job interview, use it as an opportunity. How can you find a job relevant to your years of experience and a company willing to pay for it?
It's a matter of matching up with someone who discovers that you have an area of expertise that solves a problem that they are wrestling with right now. Pay attention to the kinds of companies that are hiring people or making changes in the marketplace that indicate they are going in a different direction and may need some gray-hair expertise. Remind yourself that people get hired because they convince someone that they are the best solution to someone's problem or issue. You have to know the kinds of problems you are best at solving, where you are really better than anyone else. The length of time on a job has gotten a lot shorter than it was five or 10 years ago. The average job lasts 1.8 to 3 years. You've got to have a résumé and be ready to go at literally a moment's notice.
The time of job security I saw when I came to work is over. The company owes you a competitive salary with benefits, but if the company is in trouble, they are going to do whatever it takes to survive, and that may mean letting you go. The dilemma is, if you are someone who is really good at fixing a problem, once the problem has been eliminated or whittled down, you run the risk of becoming pretty expensive.