by Paul T. Forde

This is a story about Bob. Bob was an engineer employed with a manufacturing company for eight years. One day in March, Bob was called into his supervisor's office and told that, due to unfortunate economic conditions, the company was forced to scale back, and hence Bob's position would be eliminated. Bob was overjoyed. He was single with no major financial responsibilities and was about to receive several month's severance, the use of an out-placement firm, and unemployment insurance. Bob was also "confident" that he could find another position shortly; after all, he had eight years of experience, a Master's degree, and since he was single, the ability to move anywhere he wanted.

I spoke to Bob the day he was terminated. I told him that from personal experience, I could offer him one bit of crucial advice - start your job search immediately. He responded that he would, first thing Monday morning, but was heading up to the mountains to ski for the weekend.

In mid-August, I received a telephone call from Bob. He was calling from the out-placement office and was interested in suggestions I could offer regarding potential employers; in other words, he was NETWORKING! During the course of the conversation I learned that he had just started his job search. I asked him what he had been doing for the last six months. His response went something like this: "well, I figured there was no rush, so I decided to take some time off. I skied until the end of April, spent May down in the Carolina's, June on the Cape doing some great wind surfing, and July I hung out in the city. Now that it's August I figured it was time to start looking". To put it mildly, I was shocked.

Bob went on to say that he had a couple of opportunities that looked real promising, and he should have something within a month or two. I gave him the names of a couple of companies he should contact. After our conversation ended, it was my firm conviction that Bob was in for a real "eye opener".

In January, I called Bob to see how he was doing. Things had changed a little for Bob. He was still maintaining his "life-style" to some extent (skiing on the weekends), but had taken a part-time job in the afternoons working in a non-skilled job. He indicated that he used the mornings to conduct his job search. He also said that the two "opportunities" he had fell through. One firm was looking for more experience in design capabilities, and the other company hired another candidate. However, he was optimistic because he was talking to a lot of people, had had a few interviews, and was looking forward to a week in the Caribbean in late February. As a final note, I gave him the name of a company which was looking for someone with his background. That was the last time I spoke with Bob.

What happened to Bob? First and foremost, he fell into a trap which many experienced engineers and recent graduates step into. In other words, they embrace the "I'll take some time off and relax" syndrome. As a person who has interfaced with many engineers who have faced termination, I have come to the conclusion that this is the worst possible approach on can take when faced unemployment.

Several years ago, I read an article which traced the careers of steelworkers after they lost their jobs because of a plant shutdown. The article focused on two main "groups"; those that started their job search immediately, and those who waited. The former group, on the whole, appeared to have "survived" in terms of life-style and job satisfaction. Initially, few were able to find as high paying jobs in other steel mills, but they did find jobs within other industries which eventually brought them back to the salary levels they had while employed as steelworkers. Different examples were given on how this particular group conducted their job campaign, but the main denominator was that they began their job search immediately, and the average time unemployed was six months.

The other group, the ones that decided to "take some time off", was considerably larger, and experienced varying degrees of "results". Some were able to land comparable jobs in other steel mills; but in many cases relocation was required. The majority, however, ended up accepting less paying jobs, and the average time of unemployment was almost two years. Unfortunately, this latter group also experienced a greater incidence of problems; family, personal, and financial.

The first question that comes to my mind when I hear an engineer say he will be taking some time off (after termination) is "WHY?" If he had not been terminated, would he have taken some time off? The answer is obvious, but I often hear "I need time to clear my head, and think about what I really want to do?" This is a legitimate response, but in today's job market, it constitutes a risk.

Suppose you have just been terminated from your job. What do you have to gain by postponing your job search? Keep in mind that for the past few years you have routinely worked in your related field, which most likely reflects a type of self discipline; everything from getting out of bed in the morning to working extra hours to complete a demanding assignment. Why not make the most of this discipline and maintain this routine? The major difference is that your new job is finding a job. There is no doubt this requires a considerable change in philosophy and attitude; however, will taking time off really improve or increase your chances of finding another position?

There is another aspect of taking time off that the unemployed should consider. Imagine yourself as a manager who is looking to fill a technical position within your organization. You have two candidates, both of equal qualifications. Both are unemployed; one has been out of work for two months and the other has been unemployed for nine months. Furthermore, you learn that the latter started his job campaign two months ago. What candidate are you more likely to hire? While this may be an unlikely scenario, it may make you consider something you had not previously evaluated; that is, how aggressive is that person who started looking for a job after an seven month "vacation" compared to the other candidate who started his job campaign immediately?

Consider Bob's position. During an interview with a potential employer, someone asks him how long he's been out of work. He answers, "one year". The next question may very well be, "what have you been doing for the past year?". Depending on the situation and the response, this could have an impact on their decision to hire.

When it comes down to it, beginning your job search is a critical issue, and if you are faced with unemployment, perhaps you may wish to ask yourself some "critical" questions:

    * How long will it take me to find a new job? * Is my expertise in that much demand that I will find a new position within a short time? * If never faced with unemployment before, am I that good (in terms of conducting a job search) that I can find a new job quickly? * What will I accomplish by taking one, three, six months off? * If I take time off "to clear my head", what will I tell a potential employer?

These are the type of questions that should be asked immediately upon termination. It is also the time to put one's ego aside, and to be very realistic.

Getting back to to the person who begins their job search immediately. After two months, they get an offer, which they decide to accept. However, while they are delighted to have found a job, the "stress" of unemployment has taken it's toll. Now you really deserve some time off. What can you do? Very simple. Ask your new employer if you can start two, four, even six weeks from now. If they ask "why", tell them. Your reason could be as simple as "I want to take some time off, after a stressful two months", or "I need two weeks to tie up some loose personal matters". I would be very surprised if they objected. Consider it another way; they obviously thought enough of you and your qualifications to offer you the job. If you need some time before starting work for them, they should be willing to let you take it.

The above discussion centers on the engineer with experience; however, the same rules apply to the recent graduate. Entry level jobs are just as difficult to find! In addition, fewer and fewer companies are recruiting on college campuses. A word of advice - START YOUR JOB SEARCH IMMEDIATELY UPON GRADUATION, or preferably six months before. Your goal should be to obtain a position within your chosen field and gain experience! Taking the summer off can be a risky move. Let a potential employer know that you are aggressive and anxious to begin your career. If you need the time off, ask your employer (when the offer is made) if you can start in two, three, or four weeks. Then go out and have a good time, knowing that you have a job waiting for you!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Paul T. Forde is a graduate engineer with over 15 years industry experience primarily in the metals related field. He received degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Columbia University. His book, EFFECTIVE TECHNICAL NETWORKING, entails a step-by-step process for conducting an effective job search via the networking process.
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