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5 Rules for Staying Employable

Whether you’re looking for work or want to stay put, you need to master these skills. Here’s how.

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by Chris Gardner

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It was around 1 p.m. I had finished up some meetings on Wall Street and was taking the subway back to midtown. The train should have been empty, but it was packed.

A fellow passenger recognized me, and we started talking. I quickly learned that he and thousands of others had just lost their jobs at Citibank. All of those folks were on their way home to tell their husbands, wives, families, and mortgage companies that they no longer had work.

Here's what I told that man (in a nice, loud voice) and what I'd like to tell you, too, if you've recently taken that sad ride home: "You've lost your job, but you haven't lost your skills, talent, or expertise. What you've got to do now is create opportunities."

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Or maybe you have a job, but you're afraid of losing it. That's understandable. Gone are the days when a solid track record meant automatic job security. To hold on to work in this economy, you need to maximize your opportunities and burnish your personal brand. Here's what the hiring pros advise.

1. Build Your Social Network

If you want to find a job, people need to know you're looking. That means telling friends, family, acquaintances — just about everybody you meet. It also means getting yourself on the big three social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Social media is the fastest and most efficient way to spread the word about your job hunt and to keep in touch with friends who may hear about openings. On these sites you can join groups of people in your field, compare notes, and get answers to job-related questions. Employers are also online and looking. "The number of companies that use social media websites to recruit job candidates increased more than 50 percent in the last three years," says Hank Jackson, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

How best to use these platforms? There's plenty of advice available, starting on the sites themselves. Facebook is for networking with friends. Twitter lets you post pithy comments or tweets that showcase your observations, opinions, and knowledge. You can also read tweets posted by people you'd like to work for, allowing you to better understand who they are and how to impress them. Employers and job sites often post openings on Twitter. (TwitJobSeek is just one of the applications that help you find jobs online.)

LinkedIn lets folks know your professional history and connections, and it's a must for job seekers. An important section on your LinkedIn page spotlights letters of recommendation. Request these from your bosses and colleagues, including people you know through volunteer positions. On LinkedIn, as on other career sites, you get back what you put out, so write at least as many recommendations as you request.

Also check out Google's networking function, Google+, which lets you organize your family, friends, and professional contacts into separate groups. The benefit: You don't have to bore your friends with your insights on, say, supply-chain logistics, or worry that potential employers will learn more than they need to about your bowling-league victory bash.

See also: Same Job More Meaning

Another way to build your network is by blogging about your area of expertise on a free site, such as Wordpress or Blogspot. The blog site will instruct you about how to create a basic blog. After that it's up to you to research and write short entries on a regular (eventually daily) basis. Once you have a blog, call notables in your field and ask to interview them briefly for a short article you're writing. You may get a lot of "No, thanks," but it's a great way to make contacts. Read up on the person and have five or so questions ready before you approach them. The same people who don't like cold calls about job openings will often respond warmly to questions about their pet project or specialty.

2. Focus on Your Targets

Today's smart job seeker makes targeted strikes. Don't get bogged down in massive job databases. Instead, go directly to the websites of companies you'd like to work for and check out their "Careers" pages. Your professional association or organization — if you never joined one, do so now — may have a job bank with openings in your field. If you're considering a career switch, check out O*NET OnLine, the Department of Labor's list of new and growing fields.

Next, prepare to meet people who work at your target companies. Learn as much as you can about their key decision makers. Read stories; ask questions. What were their career paths? What are their outside interests? Seek these people out on their own turf. Does their company sponsor a charity run? Compete, or at least volunteer. Connect with them over a shared interest, rather than hat-in-hand. Is this a modified form of stalking? Hey, do what you've got to do.

As I wrote in Start Where You Are, I learned a lot from one of the top stockbrokers in the business, Gary Abrahams, who moved from San Francisco to Las Vegas in the late 1970s. Noticing fabulous houses being built on the outskirts of town, Abrahams put on his best blue suit and went door-to-door to meet the owners. Through the new clients he met, he became Dean Witter's top producer in that region.

3. Nail the Interview

When it's time for an interview, make it easy for the employer to pick you for the job. Ask colleagues what they think your strengths are and call upon these kudos during the interview to help make the sale.

Most important: Know what you're talking about. "Do your research on the organization, understand what the business does and the industry in which it operates," says SHRM's Jackson. Armed with that knowledge, you can ask questions that highlight your strengths. For example, you might ask an interviewer to name the company's biggest challenge — and be prepared to discuss possible solutions.

Above all, project confidence. "Candidates we hire are people who understand their unique strengths and skill sets and demonstrate right up front a commitment to our mission and an authentic interest in our business," says Paul Hvidding, vice president of human resources at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), which has appeared in AARP's list of best employers. "It's almost as if they are saying, ' I have a lot of choices where I spend the rest of my career, but I'm interested in your organization.' "

It's not fair, but some younger hiring managers worry that older workers lack the vitality to keep up. (Interviewers have even been known to sneak in a walk with older applicants, then judge them on their pace.) So project upbeat energy, whether that means a brisk stride or alert assurance when answering questions. And choose an interview time when you're most energetic, says Jackson: "If at all possible, schedule the interview when you are at your best and most alert — if you are a morning person, schedule it before lunch."

Even if you're aiming for a permanent job with benefits, don't rule out a temporary contract. A lot of employers are hiring temps as a way to ride out the recession. Think of a temp job as an audition for a full-time role.

4. Stay Engaged

In this economy, the audition doesn't end when you've landed the job. To solidify your standing, be it in a temp job or a long-term position, involve yourself in all aspects of office life, from joining in company volunteer activities to tackling tough tasks. Arrive on time — or even early — every day. In other words, be a team player. "This is important for the success of every employee, regardless of age," says Hvidding.

If you're lucky enough to have a permanent position, don't feel entitled. Companies value longtime employees' institutional memory, but to be irreplaceable you must stay invested. Take the initiative and assume new responsibilities. Broaden your experience to meet the company's evolving needs, whether that means taking a class or volunteering for a committee. "Well-regarded employees of any age work to keep their skills up-to-date," says Devin Ryder, a senior training and development specialist at Harvard's Center for Workplace Development. Bottom line: The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are.

Also, it's an intergenerational workplace out there. You may report to someone younger than you, or you may be teamed with younger colleagues. Shake off any resistance to new ideas and techniques. "There's little room today for the employee who wants to do things the way they've always been done," says Jackson. Instead of grumbling about what your colleagues don't know, share what you've learned, and be open to learning from them.

Remember: If you don't schmooze, you lose. Create a personal connection with your boss and colleagues. You don't want to be a pest, but you don't need to be. Keep it light and genuine, and see what develops

5. Never Discount Your Worth

Several months after I rode the subway with those laid-off Citibank workers, I heard from the man I'd met on the train. He and some of his colleagues had pooled their 401(k)s and started their own company. "We don't have the perks or pay that we used to," he said, "but we own this!" Their first customer? Their former employer, Citibank.

Even if you don't seek to start your own company, you can learn from his example. You have what employers need — even if they don't always realize it. Says Jackson: "A seasoned employee shouldn't underestimate what he or she has to offer." With confidence, networking, and face time, you can show anyone why they need you.

Chris Gardner, author of  The Pursuit of Happyness, is AARP's Ambassador for Pursuit and Happyness. Additional reporting by Tina Adler.