Navigating Being Furloughed or Laid Off

Let’s get right to the point — it’s a difficult time in the job market these days. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have lost jobs, internships, and contracts. You may have enthusiastically applied for job opportunities, perhaps for over a year or more (especially in academia), only to see those positions disappear into thin air. Or maybe you received a job offer, only to suddenly have the organization inform you that because of budget restrictions and uncertainty, they will not be hiring you after all. Managing a job search is challenging to begin with, but in a time of widespread fear and uncertainty, it is especially hard and extremely taxing on our well-being.

For those in our communities who have been laid off or furloughed from their organizations, it can be extremely difficult to maintain focus on getting another job, especially when there seems to be very little hiring taking place. Moreover, the layoff is not happening in a vacuum — the public health crisis is impacting us all, every day, in both seemingly small and significant ways. We are seeing our family, friends, and colleagues get sick, and more tragically, pass away from COVID-19. To say it is hard to be productive in this environment is an understatement.

And yet, we still need to work. We have living expenses and we have to pay for our food and housing. So, we have to take action to move our careers forward and get another job. But before you actually apply for jobs, you need to gather data about yourself and your value and skills and understand more about the ecosystem.

There are a few tactics you can employ right now to navigate this uncertainty and even cushion the blow. By taking these steps now, you will be more efficiently prepared to land your next role.

Make a plan to monitor your health, and if you find yourself tumbling into a pit of despair, stop. Take a deep breath. Center yourself. And plan out your next 5 minutes.

Recognize the layoff is not your fault

In tough times, we tend to personalize and internalize what is happening around us. When I was laid off from my job 12 years ago, I absolutely took it personally. But was it my fault? Not really. The program I administered ran out of money and the year was 2008 — the worst financial crisis in 20 years. I was a victim of circumstance. I logically knew that the layoff wasn’t tied to my value as a professional or as a human being, but there were times immediately afterwards that I had to make a note to myself to intentionally not blame myself.

My health was at stake, not to mention my ability to focus and take specific steps to generate an income. So I had to summon my strength and remember that my self-worth is not connected to me not having a job and do what I could to logically remove the emotion and subjective notions I had associated with the layoff from the logical, objective goal I needed to immediately address, which, of course, was to find paying work.

Do yourself a favor and utilize your training as a chemical engineer to do the same: keep your objective at the forefront of your mind and make sure it is objective — that is, aim to separate the emotions from the logic problem (of getting a job) that you need solve at this moment.

Make a plan to monitor your mental, physical, and emotional health

This period is going to be extremely taxing on your nerves and can produce feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration, and loss. You may feel overwhelmed by a sense of despair and even depression. Since you can’t build a successful career and plan your next professional move without a foundation of good health, you have to focus you attention on yourself from the start.

If you find yourself experiencing these feelings, write them down. Acknowledge them — you do not have to repress them or pretend you don’t feel sad. You have every right to experience these emotions. But what we want to be careful of is not to have the emotions fully consume us to the point where they negatively impact our mental and physical health.

Make a plan to monitor your health, and if you find yourself tumbling into a pit of despair, stop. Take a deep breath. Center yourself. And plan out your next 5 minutes. I have found this simple exercise is effective in investing in my personal health so I can make decisions about my professional health.

This is the time to reach back to your former colleagues, peers, mentors, proteges, and supervisors to see how they are doing and let them know that you are considering your next career opportunities.

Research any resources that may be available

Start with your former employer, with the goal of understanding and accessing benefits that can help you weather this storm or even get another job. Many organizations offer job search resources for those who are laid off or furloughed, including access to resume writers/editors and recruiters, as well as more tangible benefits such as severance pay and extended health insurance. Talk to your human resources department to find out what you will be able to leverage, and how and when you should do it.

Update your marketing materials

Your LinkedIn profile will be your ticket to landing your next job, but your resume, cover letter templates, and elevator pitches are also important. Take this time to update and polish them. As for your social media, this is a perfect opportunity to clarify your brand (your promise of value) to the communities which will hire you in the future. As yourself: do your profiles on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other platforms adequately and clearly articulate what you can do for an employer?

Explore options for contract work

In this pandemic, I have found that while organizations may not be hiring as many for fulltime employees, many are still open to contract, temporary, or freelance partnerships. Interestingly, some people who are laid off are even hired back as contractors by the same employer. Now is the time to explore this with your former employer and with other organizations that may be interested in the problems you can solve for them. Ask yourself: what problems am I uniquely positioned and qualified to solve, and for whom?

Do a financial health check

In all of our fears over not having a job, we need to know exactly what our finances are. Can you calculate precisely how much money you have right now? What are the sources of that money? It might be more than your bank account — for example, you might have access to money from family or friends, loans, grants, retirement accounts, and so forth.

Next, determine how much you need to spend right now, in the next one, three, six and 12 months, and delineate where the expenses are – most likely it starts with your and your family’s housing, food, medicine, and utilities, but there could be other hidden expenses that you didn’t realize you had. This is the time to look at the hard data of where your money is being spent. With this data, we can take the next step, which is to determine where we can cut expenses (at least for the time being).

Make a list of all your “needs” — everything you absolutely have to spend money on, and compare that to your credit card bills and bank statements to assess where your money is actually going each month. The goal here is to find out how long you can manage without a paycheck. This knowledge is crucial for you to have, as you make a plan to renter the workforce.

Activate your networks

There are two types of networking that you can engage in at any given time. In the first, you are contacting people you already have a relationship with, even if they only existed over LinkedIn or other virtual means. The second type of networking is the kind that you initiate now, where you find people (for example in the AIChE directories or on LinkedIn), connect with them, and ask for 15-minute informal conversations to discuss the potential to collaborate. In both cases, the networking is the most honorable activity in which you can engage because networking is about building win-win alliances, where you are both providing value to each other.

Effective networking partnerships are launched on a genuine spirit of generosity — what can I do for you, rather than what can I take from you. This is the time to reach back to your former colleagues, peers, mentors, proteges, and supervisors to see how they are doing and let them know that you are considering your next career opportunities. The informal discussion will give you both the chance to learn what you can craft together. (Stay tuned for more tips on networking in a future blog post!)

Leverage AIChE

Your professional society is always your strategic career partner, for the lifetime of your career(s). But during a crisis period like the one we are experiencing in the job market now, AIChE is even more strategically positioned to help you.

The organization has many career resources, from its job board, CareerEngineer (where you will find postings that may not appear anywhere else), to a huge array of networking opportunities, accessed through finding people in the membership directories and joining and becoming active in the Technical Groups, local sections, and committees. The AIChE Academy has a ton of professional development courses and webinars you can attend at discounted rates to boost and diversify your skillset.

If you are not clear how AIChE can assist you, contact the membership department today to learn more about your benefits. AIChE is also strategically important because you want to stay abreast of the industries you aim to work in, and the association has many publications, networks, and means to learn about the state of sectors around the world.

Have compassion for all

This is not an easy time. And for many of our colleagues, it is even more challenging. Please maintain compassion for yourself and your communities. Please understand that we are in this together. Please be self-aware and showcase your naturally generous spirit, aiming to see how you might be able to help others during these crises. And please remember that the only way through this challenging time is together.

Note: Concepts in this blog post build on and have appeared in other works by the author, including her presentations, articles, columns, and book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015)

Alaina G. Levine is an award-winning entrepreneur, international keynote speaker, STEM career consultant, science writer, corporate comedian, and author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which beat out Einstein (really!) for the honor of being named one of the Top 5 Books of 2015 by Physics Today Magazine. She is a regular speaker and consultant for AIChE. @AlainaGLevine