Layoffs loom.... How safe are you?
The situation is better than it's been for awhile, but cost cutting still tops the corporate agenda. Here's how to buffer yourself.
By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Back-to-work season begins after Labor Day. But so, too, does a new season of job cuts.

Typically, the heaviest months for layoff announcements have been October, December and January, according to John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

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1. Have you ratcheted up your career skills? Have you learned something new in the past 90 days (mastery of a piece of software, an accounting formula, a foreign language, etc.)?

The good news is that, relative to the past six years, 2006 has been a mild year for layoffs so far. To date, 481,536 job cuts have been announced, which is 25 percent fewer cuts than were announced during the first three quarters of 2005.

But, because of a slowing in the economy and increased energy and payroll costs, Challenger said he expects to see somewhat of a jump in the fourth quarter. Over the past 10 years, 9.7 million jobs were cut, 38 percent of which were announced in the last four months of the year.

Economist Ken Goldstein at the Conference Board has a different take. "Layoffs are probably not going to intensify, but they're also not likely to let up."

One indicator to watch for will be weekly reports of initial jobless claims. They've been trending between 300,000 to 325,000, he said. So if they start to come in consistently above that range, that may indicate layoffs are increasing in the fourth quarter.

Goldstein also expects new job creation to slow and possibly fall to as low as 100,000 by November and December - last month 113,000 new jobs were created, making it the fourth consecutive month in which job creation was weaker than expected.

And the unemployment rate - currently 4.8 percent - is likely to cross 5 percent by year-end, he predicts, although he doesn't expect it to top 5.5 percent.

Put into perspective, he said, the possibility that you or someone you know may be subject to a layoff won't be as low as it was in 2004 and 2005 pre-Katrina, but it won't be nearly as high as it was in 2001 or in the early 1990s, when weekly jobless claims were hitting half a million.

Spotting signs of a layoff

Layoffs may be in the offing where you work if:

• Your industry is in trouble, and your company is not a leading player.

• Key people are leaving, indicating a change in leadership.

• Your company is in the process of being acquired.

• Your boss becomes distant from you and others, or your relationship with your manager breaks down.

• There are a lot of closed-door meetings between higher-ups, and HR folks make regular trips to managers' offices.

You usually won't know for sure if a layoff will happen until it happens, but you can take small steps now to minimize your chances of getting laid off and maximizing your professional opportunities if you do.

Make yourself indispensable. Having a reputation for doing great work is one buffer against getting laid off. "Be your best at your job and be better than the people around you," said workplace consultant Sharon Jordan-Evans. And be sure to "toot your horn in a quiet, subtle way. Remind people of your value," she added.

If you've had a bad relationship with your boss, and you want to turn it around, you might be able to do so within three months if you make it a point to figure out what he or she wants or needs that you're not doing.

Update and polish your resume. Always a good idea, layoff or no.

Network. Don't just join a professional association; attend a few meetings, Jordan-Evans said. That way, new contacts won't simply see your name on a membership list - they will have a clearer sense of who you are.

Get back in touch with a favorite headhunter and let him or her know that you might be in the market for a position in the next several months.

Search some online job sites and job chat rooms to get a better sense of the current market in your field.

Bank some money. If your emergency fund is looking little gaunt, you might fatten it up while you still have a regular paycheck coming in. It's best to have at least three months' worth of expenses, six if you can swing it.

That way, if you are laid off and your severance package falls a few million bucks short of a CEO's golden parachute, you won't have to incur debt to support yourself until you find your next job.


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