I was just reading Paul Downs’ post in The New York Times “You’re The Boss” blog, “How I Fire People,” which interestingly was at the top of the Times’ most emailed list for a few days in a row. While I found the piece informative from a small business management perspective, I also found myself wondering how many of its many readers are small business owners, and how many are employees feeling angsty about their own job security and looking for insight into how to recognize when they might be on the chopping block.

I originally intended to write a blog post responding to some of the management issues raised by Downs’ piece (it does a good job of explaining some practical realities of the firing process by putting this situation in the broader context of hiring and managing staff) but after reading a lot of the comments and thinking more about it, I find the reaction to his article more interesting than the substance of it.

People are just plain freaked out these days about job insecurity, and with good reason. Besides reading a steady stream of news reports about unemployment (including some unbelievably sad stories of long-term unemployment), I (and you too, undoubtedly) personally know many folks who have either lost their jobs or have been told their job is at risk of being cut in the near future. I know even more who have been forced to accept pay cuts or reductions in their hours. The last few months have offered nothing but grim jobs reports, and the political finger-pointing and partisan bickering of this election year add a sickening layer to it all.

The continued weakness of the economy, and the job market in particular, just strengthens my belief in the power of having self-employment skills. Knowing how to earn income on your own, without an employer, is a powerful arrow to have in your quiver — and an especially important one to have in a tough economy.

Of course, running a business during lean times isn’t a cakewalk either. But having the know-how to fly solo — even temporarily, in between jobs — can remove a huge source of anxiety and stress that often plagues those who have always relied on regular employment for their income.

This has definitely been true for my husband and I. We’ve had our fair share of down cycles in our self-employment income and prospects since the economy soured in 2008, and feel the stress of flat or declining income as much as anyone. But having been self-employed for several years now, our natural reaction to lean times is to kick into problem-solving gear and figure out how to scare up some new work. Losing a job is not a terrifying prospect for us, as we don’t have jobs.

It kind of cracks me up that so many people think self-employment is so “risky.” Relying on someone offering you a job and keeping you on their payroll seems riskier, especially in today’s job climate. Developing your own skills to build and control income streams seems eminently conservative and security-minded to me.

The power of self-employment to help sustain you in lean job times is one big reason why I’ve been such an evangelist for working for yourself throughout my career. If you’re someone who prefers to have a job but wants to add some self-employment skills to your career toolbox, here are a few tips for getting started.

Think about how you can be a consultant in the field you’re already working in. Whatever job you have, you’ve undoubtedly learned a thing or two. With a little bit of creativity and savvy, you can often find someone (often, other businesses) willing to pay you for your knowledge, advice and guidance in your area of expertise.

Recognize that self-employment can be a temporary option, to help keep you afloat between jobs. If you don’t look at yourself as an entrepreneur, or envision yourself starting a larger business, that doesn’t mean you can’t earn some income on your own either in between jobs or on the side to supplement your income. (Pam Slim is a great advocate of developing a “side hustle.”)

Manage your money carefully, and definitely use bookkeeping software (even super-basic software like Quicken) to manage your finances. Sorry, this is kind of boring, but it’s important to include, especially for those who don’t consider themselves “entrepreneurial” or “business-y.” Basic tracking of your income and expenses is essential for many reasons, including being able to file tax returns accurately and being able to make solid decisions about your business. Without clean, accurate financial records, you risk losing money (both in lost profits and tax penalties), and missing opportunities for making profitable decisions. Don’t make this mistake.


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