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3 ways to prep for a tougher job market: ‘A lot of doors are closing.’

The latest jobs report was rosy, but 2024 could bring fewer job listings, smaller perks for job-hoppers and the looming threat of potential layoffs

Employees might want to take a more cautious approach to their careers in the new year, some experts say.

MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

Gone are the days of fervent hiring and hefty pay raises. 

The economy pumped out a surprisingly strong 216,000 new jobs in December, the Department of Labor said Friday, suggesting lots of residual strength in a cooling U.S. labor market. 

But the outlook for 2024 is slightly less upbeat: Employees and job seekers — especially those in white-collar industries — are more likely to encounter fewer listings, reduced perks for job hoppers and a looming specter of layoffs. 

That means some career-minded individuals might want to take a more cautious yet proactive approach to their job in the new year, experts told MarketWatch.

“We were in a [job] candidate’s world,” said Cassandra Whitlow, a career coach and recruiter based near Charlotte, N.C.. “Now the pendulum has swung in the other direction.” 

Following are a few key points to keep in mind about the 2024 job market and the ways it might shape your own career. 

Expect job hopping to get harder 

In the years following the onset of the pandemic, workers quit their jobs in record numbers. Employers, desperate to fill open positions, offered big pay hikes and other perks to lure candidates who were often choosing between multiple offers. 

That era is over, Whitlow said.

“My advice to [clients] right now is to hang on to what you have,” Whitlow said. “The job might seem better on the other side, but once you get there it could be eliminated. Make yourself a valuable contender where you’re at.” 

Whitlow works primarily in information technology recruiting, which she said has contracted significantly over the past year. 

“Every single week in November and December I heard of one or more people in my network getting laid off,” she said. “A lot of doors are closing.”

Hiring in white-collar roles has been sluggish for some time. Sectors like software development, human resources and marketing saw the sharpest declines in job postings over the course of 2023, according to data from jobs site Indeed. 

In the current labor market, even workers who successfully jump ship may not find as much benefit, said Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, said.

“The gains from job switching are not going to be as big as they were over the last few years,” he said. “Employers had really fervent demand and a sort of ravenous hiring appetite. … [T]hat period is behind us now.”

If you’re searching for a remote role, expect to find fewer opportunities. Those kinds of roles are most frequently found in the industries where hiring has slowed the most, the Indeed data showed. 

Act as if you’re getting laid off

Tessa White, a career-navigation adviser and founder of the Job Doctor, suspects job cuts are ahead in 2024.

“Almost every CEO that I know is planning layoffs right now,” she said. “I think things are going to slow down much more than we expect.”

Her suggestion? Go ahead and start acting like you’ll get laid off later this year. 

When we’re planning to leave our current job — or expecting potential cuts down the line— we’re a lot more focused and intentional at work, she said. We prioritize important projects and collect evidence of a job well done. We reach out to our professional network and ask our manager about other ways to move the needle. 

“When someone’s going to leave their job, they behave differently. They’re laser-focused, they want that win on their resume,” she said. 

Go ahead and implement those habits now, White said. That way, if the worst comes to pass, you’ll be prepared — and if not, your career will still get a boost.

“Rather than just sitting and worrying about layoffs, I would ask myself: If my job was going away, what are the things that I would want to get over the finish line? What relationships would I want to build before that happens?” she said. “It should lead to greater focus and prioritization.”

She recommends gathering data that shows the impact of your contributions, refreshing your professional skills with certifications or other training, or spending 30 minutes a day on LinkedIn cultivating your network.

She also added that sticking with a role through a tough period — like layoffs or budget cuts — could also have unexpected benefits.

“When you’re able to work through those tough times in a company, it acts as incredibly deep training,” she said “Discomfort doesn’t mean a job is wrong. Discomfort could just mean you’re entering a phase that’s the first trigger for reinvention.” 

Despite some high profile job cuts in 2023, layoffs are still at historically low levels. The U.S. labor market’s layoff rate was 1% in November, unchanged from the prior two months. 

“What that suggests is there’s still a lot of demand for workers, particularly the ones that employers are already employing,” Bunker said.

It could be the case that companies are less keen to let go of their workers this year after so many months spent struggling to fill empty positions. 

But we haven’t really seen that phenomenon of “labor hoarding” materialize in the U.S. before, Bunker noted. 

Go ahead and ask for a raise — if you’ve got a strong argument

With job cuts on the table and the uncertainty of a presidential election ahead, companies are likely to tighten the purse strings this year, Whitlow said. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a raise — in fact, she said, the beginning of a new year during performance reviews is one of the best times to do it.

But you’re going to want to put together a strong case. 

“Leverage everything that you’ve done  and everything you brought to the table,” Whitlow said. “Stack everything in your favor” 

That’s pretty much always been the case, said Andy Challenger, senior vice president at the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But in the last few years, employees gained so much leverage that pushing for a pay raise got a lot easier. 

Now is the time to re-brief yourself in the basics of salary negotiations, he said.

“The last couple years it was such a free for all,” he said. “Now you’ve got to go back to the fundamentals.”