NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
This may well be the year of the employee.
Employers created 2.2 million jobs in the U.S. last year, according to the Labor Department, but this year could be even better.
But if you want to make a change, get started now. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas says the first two months of the year are the best in terms of hiring.
It's your year, your career, and your job to make things happen. Today's five tips will help you take advantage of an improving job market.
1. Arm yourself.
Chances are you haven't even thought about a change in your current job or even a new one because there were few options out there.
As the job picture brightens, arm yourself to make your move. Find out which departments within your current employer are growing, where the jobs are popping up at other companies, and which industries are hiring.
The Wall Street Journal's CareerJournal.com is a free Web site that offers job search strategies and tips as well as a salary calculator. You can also find ballpark salary rages, as well as what your skills should fetch in today's job market, at www.salary.com.
If you've been dying to try a new industry, the best way to feel out a new field is to ask people on the inside. And a popular new way to network online is over the Web.
A number of Web sites offer free networking services based on the theory of six-degrees of separation -- you invite your friends and colleagues to join the site and your web of contacts grow as more people become linked. Among them: www.LinkedIn.com, www.Friendster.com, and www.spoke.com.
Once you know what your options are, dust off that old resume and add all your latest responsibilities and accomplishments.
2. Strut your stuff.
You may not be aware of new opportunities shaping up within your company, but you can position yourself to become a candidate for new jobs before they are announced. That means impressing the higher ups.
John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, advises that instead of finishing a project on deadline you should "get it done ahead of time and then request new assignments or projects."
"Or, better yet, suggest new projects," he added.
Another way to become noticed as a great employee is to become a utility-infielder. Learn other people's jobs and responsibilities so you can jump in and help out if needed.
Don't keep your talents to yourself. For example, include your boss or another superior on an e-mail giving the progress on an initiative you started. Taking note of what you have accomplished will also come in handy during your next interview.
3. Build a reputation.
You can create a name for yourself beyond simply being a solid employee by developing a specialty. People who are known for righting ailing businesses or scouting new talents often get a reputation beyond their company's front door.
Find a key talent or knowledge base needed in your field and make yourself the expert. Take that reputation with you while networking too. Don't be afraid to let others know what you're great at. They might think of you when they need expertise like yours at their company.
4. Ask for more money.
As the employment picture improves, employers may have more money to keep their best employees from leaving. You, however, have to ask for it.
"Discuss all the major initiatives you have taken and point to your impact on the company. Then ask for a raise, but don't specify an amount right away," Challenger said.
The rule of thumb: Let the boss make the first move. She may offer you a typical raise of around three to four percent, but you feel that deserve ten. So don't be afraid to say: "Thank you, but I was hoping for something more. How about a twelve percent raise?"
Shoot high as your boss might bring it down to that ten percent you wanted.
5. Hold tight.
If you're in an industry that's contracting, you'll need to think about job security. You want your employer to see you as an important employee, especially around layoff time.
There are a several ways you can make yourself irreplaceable: Be willing to travel or relocate, be accessible at any time, dress a little nicer than your colleagues, and be a likeable and helpful person.
Unfortunately, layoffs still happen to even the best employees. It's a good idea to build some savings just in case you lose your job. Most experts recommend having three to six months worth of living expenses available for emergencies.