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It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Mirroring any Dickens’ novel in capriciousness, mayhem and fortune, the 1998 job market fulfilled great expectations for many, at a high price for a few.
Last October marked the highest month of job cuts in almost three years. With some 91,500 people laid off that month-520 every business hour-the international
outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas called it an “extraordinary purging of the U.S. workforce amidst continuing economic prosperity.” Last year trailed only 1991 and 1993-peak recession years-with the highest number of job cuts in history as nearly 523,000 got pink slips by October. The proposed merger between Exxon and Mobil may leave 9,000 without jobs and Boeing announced that 20,000 workers will be laid off.
“Employers are blaming cuts on the economic crises in Asia and South America as well as on plummeting crude oil prices,” says John Challenger, CEO of Chicago’s Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “They also cite being hurt by the flood of less expensive foreign goods both in America and abroad.” If that’s not enough, an American Management Association (AMA) survey of more than 1,200 major U.S. employers found that most are projecting a workforce growth of only 4.6% through June 1999, down from a record 7.7% the previous year.
But wait a minute. Why all this soothsaying and caution when unemployment is hovering at a cool 4.4%? “Human resources managers aren’t hitting the brakes yet, but they’re easing up on the accelerator as they move ahead,” says Eric Rolfe Greenberg, AMA’s director of management studies in New York. “There are economic and political uncertainties that call for caution. But all this is coming after a very good year for job seekers and a comparatively worry-free year for job holders.”
The key for this year is no different from the past and will continue to be the mantra for the future: diversify your skills. That might mean going from finance to marketing to investor relations to get a broad array of experience, says Wesley Poriotis, CEO at Wesley, Brown & Bartle, a New York executive search firm that is currently recruiting for 20-35 top-level White House administration positions. “There will always be a bullet marked for you, and multiple skills will be your bulletproof vest.”
But what skills should you get? “Broadly speaking, companies are hiring from the line and firing from the staff,” says Greenberg in response to one of the lowest unemployment rates in the past 25 years. “Companies are creating jobs where people design, make, sell and service their products, while at the same time eliminating administrative functions and squeezing whole levels out of the management pyramid. The only support functions showing strong hiring patterns are in IT and production technologies.” Hence, in some companies, job creation may be happening concurrently with job elimination.
Case in point: salaried technicians and professionals will continue to be in high demand. High-tech-the mother of all job creation industries-will continue to woo more workers into its fold. This should