4 Ways to Boost Your Career During a Recession

Even tough times provide opportunities for savvy workers.

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With the economy weakening and layoffs edging higher, many Americans have begun to fret about job security. Yet even the nastiest recessions have way more survivors than victims — assuming your company doesn't go out of business, of course. And if you play it smart, you can even thrive. Here are four ways to actually move your career forward in a downturn:

Introduce you: version 2.0. Every change presents opportunity, says Lois Frankel, an executive coach and author of Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. Frankel says layoff survivors need to get over their guilt pretty quickly. It's not uncommon for employees who witness a round of job cuts to become immobilized or feel shell-shocked, but they're missing a great opportunity to "rebrand" themselves.

When companies are flush, they're able to create specialists among their workforce. But when profits and payrolls thin, employees who can serve as "utility players," handling a variety of roles, are highly attractive, Frankel says. Lean times present an opportunity for niche employees to put other skills to work and rebuild their reputations as go-to multitaskers.

Seize what's left behind. Now, we're not just talking about filching that cool Herman Miller chair in a now-empty adjoining office. Rather, employees should actively try to pick up the work of their departed peers. "The people who get laid off make the most money, so you should just go take all their projects when they leave," says Penelope Trunk, a syndicated career columnist, blogger, and author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success.

Duncan Fuller of Framingham, Mass., is something of an expert on layoffs. He made it through about four rounds of job cuts at Genuity, an early Internet service provider, before getting the ax himself in 2001. Fuller says it was fairly common to see his fellow survivors swarm toward staplers, telephone headsets, and corporate knickknacks left in abandoned cubicles. But the real claim was abandoned sales accounts of good customers. Fuller incorporated the accounts into his own deck and worked to soothe the frustrations of clients who begrudged losing the sales rep they knew best.

Boost your market value. Frankel cautions that this isn't the time to ask management for perks like the abandoned corner office or a better title. "It's a little ghoulish," she says.

But volunteering to take on new responsibilities can pave the way for a negotiation in six to eight months, when an employee can prove that the job has evolved and is now worth more on the market. It can also build an employee into a more attractive candidate for a job outside the company.

Remember, too, that a volunteer spirit can also make you look like a team player—like someone who supports the organizational change. Frankel worked for a major oil company in the 1980s, when the price of oil dropped and the company was forced to cut jobs. The resilient employees—those who really stepped up to the plate without seeming to dance on the graves of their laid off coworkers—found many opportunities during the downturn, she says.

Embrace a new age. Suppose you're already out of work. Take advantage of it. The old thinking was that workers could only gain and expand skills at a regular job. The new thinking is that there's plenty of growth to be found elsewhere, and a traditional job can even prove stifling, Trunk says. Generation Y-ers are driving this new concept of success, Trunk says. They'll live in their parents' basements, reject job offers that don't meet their criteria, and work freelance gigs or flip websites—meaning they buy them, improve them, and sell them for a profit—to make some money.

It works for other generations, too. Instead of holding to a rigid idea of what work should be, Fuller worked as an electrician's apprentice between jobs. That proved key in nabbing his current gig as a regional salesman for an upscale landscape lighting company.