Is your job recession-proof? Here is a business-to-business perspective

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In the Nov. 10 issue of BtoB, Editor Ellis Booker observed, “Agencies are cutting digital marketing jobs left and right,” and then posed this question: “Is this an early warning sign of reductions to come on the client side?”

Over the past month, as a recruiter in the b-to-b direct marketing industry, I’ve spoken with top decision-makers at more than 100 b-to-b companies—large and small, public and private—about their hiring plans for 2009. So far, employment in this sector has held up relatively well, considering the financial carnage we’ve witnessed, and, for now, most are planning no major change in head count for the rest of the year.

But many of these business leaders worry that if customers continue to slash spending, that would result in a further contraction of the economy. This, in turn, would almost certainly translate into layoffs in the b-to-b sector in early 2009.

All of this uncertainty may be prompting marketers to ask themselves, “Just how insulated is my job from a shrinking economy? How safe am I?”

While no two recessions are alike, here are some trends that have been typical of past slumps that might help direct marketers determine their unemployment “risk quotient” should economic conditions continue to deteriorate:

Your company’s size. If you work for a larger, publicly held b-to-b business, you are generally subject to higher layoff risks than your small-player counterparts. After the agencies and service providers start to trim, the big-cap companies usually are the next to start cutting payrolls; and many already have. While an argument can be made that job cuts can actually be detrimental to a company, reducing the work force becomes an almost automatic response in an effort to satisfy investors who expect action when companies miss their numbers.

Small-to-midsize b-to-b businesses, on the other hand, tend to hold out longer before they resort to job cuts. This has more to do with their psychological makeup than with their balance sheets. Small-business owners, by their very nature, tend to be more optimistic compared with their Fortune 500 counterparts. <

A recent survey by small-business advisory firm Warrillow & Co., titled “Marketing to Small Business in a Downturn Economy,” bears this out. Even though small-business owners are pessimistic about the economy, the Warrillow study—an online survey of more than 2,000 small-business owners at companies with fewer than 100 employees conducted this summer—also found they are still feeling pretty good about their own prospects. Small-business owners also tend to have closer ties to their employees. They don’t want to issue pink slips unless they absolutely have to.

Your industry. Some industries will be much more vulnerable than others. If you are working for a company that sells products or services to retail, housing, autos or travel, you have a higher risk of losing your job than someone who is working for a company that markets to health care or the defense industry.

Your time on the job. Recent hires are often at higher risk than those with more tenure. While this does not always hold true, companies faced with decisions about whom to keep and whom to furlough will often take the last-in, first-out approach, other things being equal.

Your job title. I tend to get fewer résumés from job seekers in sales, customer service, accounting, e-commerce and circulation compared with other positions. Why? These are generally considered jobs that are essential to the operation and that create the most disruption when vacated, as well as being the most costly to recruit for and train. Overall, positions that control sales and marketing channels to customers are less likely to be eliminated.

Training budgets. If your company has recently cut its training budget, it could be a precursor of bigger cuts to come. Training cuts happen when management isn’t sure who may or may not be around to benefit from the programs.

Intangibles. Finally, remember that your value is being measured by more than just your skills and experience. Your attitude, your energy and your enthusiasm count a lot, especially in times like these when your company may need you more than ever.

Consider your “opportunity cost” to the company—that is, whether your employer believes it might end up paying more in the long run by letting you go now because of short-term pressures. If that cost is too high, you may be safe. And, if you can wear multiple hats and if your company couldn’t bear the thought of seeing you defect to a competitor, you are about as recession-proof as anyone can get.

Jerry Bernhart is principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search (, a recruiter for direct marketing, CRM/database marketing, quantitative analysis and sales/business development positions. He can be reached at [email protected]

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