Revving a career while in neutral

With prospects for new jobs or promotions still looking grim, many workers are struggling to take their careers to the next level. Some, though, have found ways to cope and make themselves more marketable for when companies start hiring again.


“You don’t have to be stuck,” says Dory Hollander, a workplace psychologist and founder of WiseWorkplaces, a career coaching and executive-development firm based in Arlington, Va. “You can be an active player in shaping your own future.”

Indeed, there are a number of ways workers can bolster their resumes in preparation for when the job market ramps up. These include volunteering to gain new skills, building a wider network of contacts and moving into a parallel position within their company.

One of the reasons many people may be feeling like their careers are at a standstill: decreasing voluntary turnover. Between January and November of 2009, 19.6 million workers quit their jobs, an amount fewer than any during that period since the U.S. Labor Department began tracking the data in 2000.

“To get a promotion, somebody has to leave,” says Steve Gross, a senior consultant for New York-based consulting firm Mercer LLC. But fewer “people are quitting and fewer people are retiring.”

What’s more, many workers didn’t receive pay increases last year, and some even saw their salaries shrink. The worst year for raises: 2009, when salaries dipped to 1.8 percent.

Meghan Stinton felt her career had hit a wall early last year while she was working as an event and fund-raising coordinator for a national nonprofit’s Denver branch. After a colleague was laid off in March, the 25-year-old says she had to do that person’s job –program coordinator — on top of hers, despite not being given a raise or title promotion.

She kept her eyes open, but says she never saw any positions in her field open up above her at the organization. She also looked for jobs at other nonprofits but failed to find anything that matched her skill set and background. “I was pretty much at a standstill,” she says.

Stinton decided to make the most of her situation. She began doing volunteer work in public relations — a field she wanted to move into — for three nonprofits that weren’t hiring. She also joined two trade groups to expand her network, including the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

Later, when a manager position opened up in the chamber’s public-relations department, she applied by emailing her resume to the membership director — one of several staffers she got to know on a first-name basis from networking. She landed the job in December, increasing her annual income by 20 percent to $32,000.

Another way to make yourself more marketable during a career slowdown is to see about transferring into a position at the same pay grade within your firm but in a different area — the classic lateral move. “You’re still learning and growing,” says Cindy Nicola, vice president of talent acquisition for Electronic Arts Inc., a video game company based in Redwood City, Calif. “Broad-based experience can ultimately position you to move up.”

In late 2008, Kate Pullman, 31, moved into a director position at Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, N.J., after about a year working at the same level but in a different niche within the financial-services firm’s human-resources department. “I thought it was better to move laterally than to wait for an opportunity to move up,” she says.

Though her salary remained flat, she got to supervise employees with different work styles than those she previously managed, plus she oversaw a company-wide initiative for the first time. She says the move paid off. In November, she was promoted to VP of staffing operations and received a 12 percent raise.

Keep in mind that before moving sideways within a firm, it can be wise to research the opportunity to make sure it won’t only benefit your career later on, but that you’ll also enjoy it.

Offering to take on extra responsibilities at work that will allow you develop a new skill or gain experience in a new area may also be a way to bolster your resume, says Margaret-Ann Cole, a senior consultant at Towers Watson, a human-resources consulting firm based in New York. Just be sure to limit your efforts to a specific time frame such as six months to avoid being taken advantage of, she advises. Also, make sure what you’ll be doing will help you move up later on by first running the idea past someone in your target job, a mentor or a career adviser.

If you think the additional work might overwhelm you, see if you can delegate some of your primary duties to a junior colleague who could benefit in the same way, says Cole.

Finally, consider enrolling in workshops or classes on a subject pertinent to your goals, and once you’ve finished, add them to your resume, says Hollander, the workplace psychologist.

“It negates the idea that you’re lazy and just biding your time,” she says. “It shows you’re taking charge and no matter what the market’s doing, it’s not going to stop you from reaching your goals.”

Author: Sarah E Needleman,