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People Feature: Making Yourself Indispensable Before Pink Slips Fly

Article published on December 12, 2016
By Jill Gregorie

There’s tinsel in the trees, snow on the ground and holiday music playing at every department store, which means it’s that time of year: layoff season. Companies are most likely to trim their workforce by 50 employees or more in the months of December and January, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics analyzed by Forbes.

The asset management industry might be particularly hard hit, if the past year is any indication. Since January, State Street has laid off 360 workers, BlackRock reportedly cut about 3% of its workforce, and Transamerica eliminated 750 positions. In addition, Pimco and Putnam conducted layoffs but restructured key parts of their businesses to weather outflows and declining revenue.

The pain may not abate anytime soon. The market forces of technological disruption and the rise of index investing show no signs of slowing in the coming year, says Darren Kimball, chief executive at The Five O’Clock Club, a career development firm that has provided outplacement services to financial firms including BlackRock.

Indeed, State Street is likely to cut 7,000 jobs before 2020, according to the Boston Globe, and Transamerica plans to chop 800 additional positions next year.

It’s possible to see the writing on the wall before receiving a pink slip, however. Analyst reports and research about how the industry is performing are one way to “read the tea leaves,” Kimball says, especially if they reveal that a competitor won some major contracts “that your company used to have.”

There are several internal indicators as well, says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and columnist for The Balance, a personal finance publication. These include hiring freezes, dismal sales projections and witnessing human resources leaders conducting multiple closed-door meetings.

A suddenly light workload coupled with heightened attention from supervisors is another ominous sign for individuals.

“If your manager is increasingly becoming a micromanager and wants to know the exact status of everything you’re working on, the next steps and what the goal is, that change in oversight can signal pending layoffs,” she adds.

Every employee should “live every day like it’s your last day at work,” she says. One of the best ways to remain marketable is by building skill sets in high-demand areas of fund management.

“In funds, there’s a big push for strong quantitative [skills],” says Daniel Close, president of Barclay Simpson Executive Search. While additional qualifications will not “suddenly open a door to a whole pool of jobs,” online classes and training to build data analysis skills can make candidates more competitive.

Online courses on the digital learning platform Lynda, YouTube training videos and classes provided by Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) are all valuable resources as well, Kimball adds.

Some employees may also benefit from becoming more specialized, says Debra Brown, managing director of Russell Reynolds’s asset and wealth management practice.

“If you can position yourself with skills that are transferable to more niche areas that are in higher demand, you’re more likely to get picked up,” Brown says. When it comes to portfolio management, she sees demand for emerging-market debt and small-cap strategies.

To obtain those, Brown recommends that employees use resources already at their disposal.

“If you’re comfortable having a dialogue with the organization, you might be able to say to the CIO, ‘I’d love to get some exposure to another strategy or style,’ or, ‘Could I understudy the XYZ team?’” Brown suggests.

Timing can also be key. If asset management employees foresee organizational shifts and want to obtain a new position preemptively, they should start looking quickly after the New Year begins.

“The optimal time for job seeking is March, April, May and June,” says Close of Barclay Simpson Executive Search. “If you’re facing a possible layoff, it’s good to be ahead of the curve and thinking about the most opportune times to look into the market.”

Asset management professionals should also have their LinkedIn profiles and social media pages up-to-date for networking, and try to have lunch with a contact or friend several times a week, Heathfield suggests.

If fund professionals want to remain in the industry but are willing to switch roles, many companies need more talented individuals in risk management and auditing, Close says.

But as active managers continue to struggle, it might be time to consider every option, even those outside the industry, says the Five O’Clock Club’s Kimball.

“As you can imagine, most people who find themselves in a situation where they’ve been let go unexpectedly are thinking, ‘How do I get a job doing exactly what I did at a competitor?’” he says. “But when you have issues impacting not just your company, but all the players in your space, the sooner you come to grips with realizing it might not be that easy and you might have to apply your skills to a different industry [or] geography, or at least consider a dual track in your search, the better.”

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