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Adjusting to Market Changes

We all know that change is the only constant.

This law applies to our relationships, bodies, and business lives: Friendships (and loveships) wax and wane, our health fluctuates, and industries come and go. We can keep relationships happy by improving our communication skills and working to establish friendship "rules" and try to satisfy the needs of others. We can learn more about our physical selves to keep our bodies strong and vibrant, and in times of illness, outside influences (doctors, medicines) can help fix things. In the same way, we can evolve to survive tight financial markets, downsizing, and the extinction of industries.

While working yesterday, I watched a documentary about the decline of NYC's Garment District (called Schmatta: Rags to Riches on HBO). Subjects talked about how there used to be ample work, so much that a skilled person could just head down to the Garment District and pick up work by asking around. Garment District unions, organizing in response to a 1911 factory fire that killed hundreds of locked-in laborers, were responsible for modernizing  America's view workers' rights.

By 1970, though, around 10% of the USA's garments were being made in foreign countries; by 1980, it had risen to 25%. By 2008, a pathetic 95% of our clothing was imported. That means generations of laborers were frittered away, positions for skilled tailors, cutters, and sewers dwindling until barely any jobs remained. In this documentary, subject after subject talked about how he not only lost his job, but also declared bankruptcy or couldn't pay his mortgage or has been unemployed for a year. (One out-of-work tailor mentioned that he was struggling by on his $400/week unemployment check, adding, "I don't mind telling you I used to be making $3100 a week.")

I was saddened by the state of the industry, especially when it was made clear how far high-end designers go to outsource their high-ticket items to Asian sweatshops, but also mystified by the people who appeared virtually paralyzed by the end of the Garment District era.

It's not like these people didn't have notice. If the statistics are available to determine a sharp downward trend in American-made garments, beginning in 1970, you know the Garment District rumor mill had to be buzzing with every lost position, downsize, and shuttered door. These workers had at least two decades (and up to three) during which they could adapt to the inevitably coming change.

Whatever your industry, you can take measures to steel yourself against competing for tighter company budgets, working in a struggling industry, and surviving market crises.

1. Keep abreast of current events. While local nightly news can turn rational people into fatalistic shut-ins, having relevant knowledge is always preferable to being in the dark. Pay attention to consumer trends, major business developments, and buzz within your company and industry. (But don't confuse rumor-mongering with real news.)

2. Make yourself valuable and likable. If downsizing or layoffs are around the bend, it's time to assess your value. Polish up any skills that are lacking, and always present yourself as a reliable, trustworthy, and hard-working asset. (The best way to do this is to hold the values of reliability, trust, and hard work in high regard, and to work as if you do.) Such traits can go a long way toward preserving your employment, even when compared against a more talented colleague whose attitude or scruples stink.

3. Remain dedicated to expanding your skill set. Go a step further than tightening up your game by adding to what you know: Take a class, learn some new software, or seek mentorship. You'll always increase your perceived value by providing more than what you were originally hired for. What use is a job if you haven't learned anything new by the time you leave?

4. Prepare for the storm. Someone making $3100/week should never be in the position of needing to rely on a $400/week unemployment check. Especially if you're earning a healthy wage, remember to set aside savings for lean times and catastrophes. Work in a strong industry doesn't guarantee the stability of your company or account for out-of-nowhere events like natural disasters, illness or injury, or terrorist attacks.

5. Recognize opportunity knocking. By following the tips above, you may set yourself up to be a prime candidate for new ventures. Whether it's taking on additional responsibilities when others are let go, offering up alternative solutions you can provide to your employer, forging business deals in the wake of other businesses' collapse, or using savings to strike out on your own, the ability to recognize a business opportunity is the greatest tool for advancement.