Financial turmoil creates greater risks in job hunting

The magical power of 20-20 hindsight is a wonderful and yet tragic thing. The improved clarity that one gains somewhere between five seconds and 24 hours after acting can often lead to disappointment.

In my case, hindsight is informing me that spending an hour Saturday afternoon applying for a job with Merrill Lynch was probably not the best idea (Merrill Lynch was purchased by Bank of America over the weekend, for those not following the current trials and tribulations of Wall Street). The same day I also applied for a job at Hewlett-Packard (HP), shortly before that company announced it would be laying off 25,000 people—more than half of them in the U.S.

Everyone regularly checking CareerBuzz and applying for jobs, especially in the financial industry, is probably starting to wish the site featured built-in stock tracking for the companies listing positions. With huge companies reporting dramatic losses, performing acquisitions (or getting acquired) and in some cases even going out of business, job seekers increasingly have to navigate an even more dangerous mine field than usual: this year, the threat isn’t just that your job will suck. It’s that you will go through the motions of interviewing, get an offer and accept—only to see yourself made redundant before your start date.

My original post-graduation plan was to travel and pursue some international opportunities until May, but I find myself having to reconsider in light of the turmoil. I suspect a company is less likely to get rid of a person once they have actually started working than while they are in that awkward Never-Never-Land of having accepted an offer but not actually started contributing.

I find myself seeking reassurance and trying to synthesize the so-called lessons for the job hunter that one can learn from the current situation. One of these lessons is that getting a job with a large company doesn’t guarantee job security—in fact, it doesn’t guarantee much of anything at all.

Lehman Brothers employed more than 26,000 employees prior to its bankruptcy filing, and HP just laid off nearly as many.

In the past, a cushy investment banking job was considered to be a relatively surefire way to accelerate a career and earn a lot of money. The events of the past few months have proven that is not truly the case.

The companies benefiting from this change in perception are largely the smaller, “riskier” firms that previously might have been looked upon as potentially unstable, startups among them. With proof that any company might just turn out to be unstable, these startups have moved to recruit more aggressively.

First Round Capital, a New York-based venture capital firm, even launched the website www.leavewallstreetjoinastartup.com, which encourages the thousands of employees on the market thanks to the financial bust to pursue startup opportunities.

Another lesson is that a company’s financial performance, likelihood of ongoing success and probability of getting bought out by another company (that would presumably lay you off) have to be factors students take into consideration when picking their first employment opportunity. While factors like compensation, opportunity for advancement and quality of benefits must surely still play an important role, few things undermine your progression in a company like a bankruptcy filing.

Finally, the third and most important take-away from the current financial crisis is that sometimes there’s really nothing you can do to make the “right” choice. We as laypersons don’t have an intimate grasp or understanding of company financials, nor are we kept in the loop on any potential interest in buyouts of one company by another. Many of us will join a company that will seem like a great opportunity and see that company downsize, get purchased or go bust within our first year.

Ultimately, we must be prepared for that scenario by keeping our options open, whether by seeking to immediately join a different company or by having enough money saved to afford a potentially lengthy new job search process. After all, it never hurts to make sure we keep our own finances sound even if those of our employer aren’t.

The Tech experience ensures that all Institute graduates leave with the ability to adapt to challenges and stressful situations. In these uncertain times, it is crucial not to forget to apply that adaptability to the job hunt—and the real world—as well.