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Preparing for the Next Recession

The Blogs of Dave Murphy: Preparing for the Next Recession

I admit it – I’m a Prepper. Not the kind with machine guns and years of freeze-dried food stored in the basement; I’m generally more concerned with preparing for financial downturns because they are rather predictable and to be expected. According the National Bureau of Economic Research it’s been 7 years and 5 months since the end of the Great Recession in the United States (the generally accepted definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth). That particularly cruel recession lasted 18 months, from December 2007 – June 2009. In the United States there have been 11 cycles of recession / recovery since 1945 and the average length of those recessionary periods has been 11.1 months.

The NEBR defines “recovery periods” as the time from the trough of the last downturn to the peak before the next downturn. Of the 11 cycles in the US since 1945 the average expansion time has been 58.4 months. We are now in month 89 of the current expansion. That history, along with the uncertainty of a very new political reality in Washington, means that we’re due for a downturn in the next few years. And then things will bounce back and we’ll continue the cycle. So it makes sense to pro-actively manage your career to account for these cyclical events, right?

I’ve been doing some research online and in my own database on the job market during the Great Recession of 2008 – 2009, and to a lesser extent the recession of 2001-2002. We all know that employment trends lag GDP growth, and because of the depth of the last recession the unemployment rate in the US remained unusually high far longer than June 2009: unemployment peaked at 10% in October of 2009, after GDP had begun growing again, and it remained above 7% until November of 2013. We can’t accurately predict the timing of the next recession or the persistency of unemployment following it, but we can safely say that job creation is limited for a far longer period than the actual recession itself. I’ve seen talented executives search for mid-level and senior-level positions for years and only recently been able to find opportunities that make sense for them.

So what career management decisions can we consider to plan for this eventuality? A wise person once said that the best time to fix your leaky roof is when the sun is shining. Thinking back over the stories of how some people successfully navigated the last recession / recovery cycle I found some trends. For the most part these are Marketing and Business Development professionals in the medical technology and biopharmaceutical industry, and they were able to maintain a fairly steady income throughout the cycle. Back in the day conventional wisdom held that if you were able to secure a job at a large, global company in the Fortune 50 you could expect to ride out a recession without getting laid off. But I have friends at places like Merck, Medtronic and Becton Dickinson who were victims of reductions-in-force. So the conventional strategy of seeking security in numbers is now risky, and most would agree that we need better ideas to proactively manage our careers through tough times.

I’ve identified four techniques that may make sense to consider:

Seek privately-held organizations
The privately-held organizations I work with tell me that they are better positioned to make investments and limit short-term cost containment measures that their publicly traded counterparts. Without quarterly pressure from stockholders to post positive financial results management can remain focused on making decisions in the best long-term interests of the organization. There is a 50 year old privately held medical device company that I help to hire marketing personnel, and they have had no force reduction or layoffs over the past eight years. In contrast, their three publicly traded direct competitors – large, global corporations with huge market caps – have each had multiple rounds of layoffs during that time span. Although sometimes viewed as being risk averse and lacking in innovation, these long-standing privately held companies, whether family owned or otherwise, often provide safe harbors during economic downturns.

Develop a sub-specialty
I’ve noticed that over the past eight years the marketing professionals I know who have been able to thrive have developed specialized skills that are differentiating and hard to find. Examples include digital and online marketing capabilities, health economics and payer-focused programming, and in-licensing skills that help an organization grow with less capital and labor investment. There are many examples and they all follow relatively new trends that require special skills not developed by the masses – and they frequently relate to cost containment. These are advanced capabilities that make an employee different and valuable to an organization, as opposed to a more generalized skill set focused on strategic planning, for example. It’s also generally true that a marketing job which is farther downstream and closer to the customer is less likely to be impacted or eliminated in a workforce reduction than a role that is upstream and internally focused.

Work with first-in-class technology
My analysis showed that a disproportionate number of workforce reductions in last eight years were at organizations that manufacture relatively mature technology in markets that are becoming commoditized. Examples include pacemakers, small molecule drugs used in the primary care setting, and ELISA kits in the clinical diagnostics segment. At one time variations of these products were highly innovative and on the cutting edge of the life sciences, but no longer. When cost pressures impact payers and large buying groups they often look for deep discounts from suppliers of these undifferentiated products, and that leads to job instability for the suppliers (unless you’re in market access or reimbursement – see last section). While it’s true that first-in-class technology is often born in risky start-ups, those career opportunities are often less risky in an economic downturn than large, old-school organizations (provided they have adequate financing, of course).

Build an external professional network
Some of the most talented marketing execs I know were laid-off in the Great Recession – many of them more than once. Yet a significant number of them have been able to build highly successful consulting careers based on the relationships they fostered while toiling away for their employers. They kept in touch with former managers and peers, and even networked with agency personnel and vendors from management consultancies and the investment community. They’ve been willing to build 1099 contract-based consulting careers with multiple clients, and in many situations have found their next full-time permanent position after first completing a successful contract assignment for the would-be employer. In a recession employers often prefer to “try before they buy” a permanent FTE, and they first look to their personal networks to identify a contractor to fill a short-term need. Linked-In has been incredibly valuable in this regard, but there is no substitute for old fashioned one-on-one emailing and phone calls.

These are four career management techniques that have been used successfully in recessionary periods, and there are many others. One need not wait for an economic downturn to take these steps, however. Give the length of our current economic expansion it may be wise to take pro-active measures such as these to fend off career misfortune. As always, I welcome your comments and questions at dave@alpinesearch.net