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Keep A Cool Head
In A Hot Job Market

By Nick Corcodilos

By the government's accounts, unemployment is at a record low. By a count of significant downsizings, lots of talented people are on the street. By The Headhunter's account, there's lots of opportunity out there — and even more opportunity to make a fatal career error.

In a hot job market — which is arguably what we're seeing — it's easy to get swept up by the hiring frenzy that many companies are supposedly engaging in. With the weekly unemployment rates dipping dramatically, many companies are scrambling to hire and smart workers can benefit from such a strong demand.

But keeping a cool head is more important now than ever.

Don’t Confuse Opportunities with Choices
High demand doesn't do away with the need to be selective and to consider the consequences of a job choice, any more than a lack of good jobs does.

Remember when over-leveraged stock brokers, insurance executives and other high-flying types suddenly found themselves losing their homes? That wasn’t very long ago. It was awfully easy for those people to take the wrong job or to negotiate the wrong kind of deal when the chips were down.

So, if you’re an MBA, an engineer, a computer programmer, or in some other "hot" field, go ahead and make hay while the sun shines. But, no matter what line of work you’re in, if you're looking at an opportunity in today's good times, make sure you consider not only your options, but your long-term goals. When an opportunity presents itself, make sure it’s also a viable choice that’s right for you. That's not so easy when employers are throwing both jobs and money at you. Here are some sobering tips that can help you maximize your win and possibly avoid disaster.

Avoid an inflated salary -- you might pay for it later.
If you're making $65K now and you accept an offer for $90K, consider whether that's what you're really worth or whether it's an act of desperation on the part of the employer. Be brutally honest with yourself. If an employer "buys" you, will you be able to maintain the salary on the next job change? An inflated salary might scare off the next good employer altogether. Worse, once you’ve got that high-paying job, would you survive a downsizing? Jobs with inflated salaries are often the first to be cut.

If you receive an aggressive offer, consider structuring your compensation like executives do. Keep the salary realistic but maximize the perks: a signing bonus, stock options or a stock grant, extra vacation time, flexible hours, a partial telecommuting option, a PC or other equipment to use at home, a car allowance, special tools, an expense account for travel and conferences, a generous education allowance. Don't leave yourself holding the "salary bag."

Finally, remember that some of the best job opportunties may require an unusual and unexpected investment from you: a salary cut. Situations that offer unusual long-term growth may seem hard to swallow, but they may be worth investigating.

Find and pursue the job you want; don't settle for what comes along, no matter how it's presented.
First, an offer from the wrong employer or for the wrong job is wrong whether it's high or low. Evaluate the offer critically. Stop and ask yourself whether you'd take the job if it was a lateral dollar offer.

Second, when recruiters come calling, remember that flattery comes with them. Keep your head and choose wisely, especially when you're being wined and dined. In a nutshell, there are many more wrong jobs out there than right ones. You'll stumble onto lots of the former if you let flattery control your career.

So, don't make the mistake of picking from what's offered. Instead, define the array of choices yourself. Don't take a job just because "it's there." Make sure you're leading the decision process rather than succumbing to it.

Renegotiate your job and compensation with your current employer.
This is a great time to ask for more money, assuming you're worth it. Investigate your value by studying other jobs and companies, but don't dangle another company's job offer in front of your boss in the hope of getting a counter offer. I've seen this backfire explosively. Make it a win-win proposition and keep the attitude positive.

Don't just ask for more money. Show how you contribute more to the bottom line than your company realizes and frame your negotiation as a request for a larger slice of the profit you produce -- not as a bigger part of the budget. (This takes careful homework!)

You can also renegotiate your title, your responsibility and your authority. You might even be able to negotiate a long-term contract. (Some companies are paying "retention bonuses", with payments made over time while the employee is still on board.) Just remember: If you want more, be ready to prove the value of what you do or what you’re proposing to do. You should also be ready to shift into a different kind of work to justify an increase in compensation.

Are desirable, better-paying positions open in your company? Now is the time to use inside channels to pursue them intelligently.

This is the time to renegotiate your entire career. Start with yourself.
If you've been considering a shift in function or responsibility, now is the time to plan and execute changes, when the job market will help support it. If you've been considering a new career track, put together a business plan for a new life. Review it critically and carefully. If you can sell yourself on the idea, test it on others you trust, then start pursuing employers who can help you make it happen. They represent your potential new business partners. Now you've got to sell them.

Let's say a company needs your sales skills but you want to move into project management. Leverage. Don't just negotiate compensation, negotiate your future. Give them what they need now in exchange for a written commitment to teach you project skills and promote you later. If the agreement includes objective performance criteria you must meet, they're more likely to go for it.

While most people are wringing their hands, worried about the next downsizing, take it upon yourself to deliver to management what it needs most. Remember: You've got to prove you can deliver profitability to the employer and to yourself. That makes you a powerful job candidate and employee.

Don't pick a job; pick the company.
I always advocate pursuing specific employers rather than chasing jobs, and the business climate is perfect for approaching only the best employers. Don't take what comes along; pursue the companies you've always wanted to work for. If they're not hiring, they will be soon. Get on their agendas now. Develop your knowledge about their business; test your acumen with inside contacts; prepare a compelling presentation. This is also the time to tell a headhunter where you want to work and let him come back with the opportunity you want.

The job market may be hot, but when many companies are downsizing and a lot of people are on the move, competition is still stiff. Will you stand out?

Finally! A chance to pitch your great business ideas.
Have you wanted more creative input in your work? The New Interview is the place to bring it up. In Ask the Headhunter: Reinventing the Interview to Win the Job I discuss how to use your meeting with an employer to demonstrate new ways you can contribute to the bottom line.

Don't just sit and answer questions; roll up your sleeves and demonstrate your value! In other words, satisfy the employer's needs first. This gives you a powerful negotiating edge to get what you want.

The next step is to gently build the employer's level of commitment to you by involving others. If you’re in sales but your interest is in marketing, now is the time to ask to meet the marketing manager. Want the opportunity to improve operations, not just handle financial functions? Ask to meet the product and operations managers. Employers who are impressed with you are more likely to acceed to your requests to explore other parts of their companies. You can take advantage of that, but you won’t be able to explore these opportunities unless you ask.

A hot job market is much more than an opportunity to boost your salary. It's a chance to take stock of yourself and pursue goals that in a tighter job market might not be attainable. Keep a cool head, create your own choices, and pursue opportunities that will pay off not just today, but for years to come.


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