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U.S. workers scramble for safer jobs as layoffs rise

CINCINNATI, Feb 1 (Reuters) - With layoffs happening all around her, automotive worker Ellen Whittington is doing what many worried Americans are doing: trying to find a safer, better job before she loses the one she has.

Strange as it may seem, changing careers or trying to upgrade jobs amid a recession and millions of layoffs may be just the thing to do -- to jump before you get pushed.

“Some organizations use downturns to go out and capture the top talent in the industry from competitors that are hurting,” said Peter Stark, business consultant and author of the forthcoming book “Engaged: How Leaders Build Organizations Where Employees Love to Come to Work.”

“They go after people who would be laid off and considered tops in their industry, but also people who are still working,” Stark said.

Whittington, 32, has updated her resume on online recruiting site Monster.com and is discretely but doggedly networking to find a way into an industry that has a more stable future than the devastated U.S. auto sector.

“It’s pretty much an open secret. Everyone is looking,” said Whittington, who works for a German automotive company in Cincinnati.

In Kansas City, one communications specialist and mother of three is also trying to find a new job, anxious to earn more pay and avoid cutbacks at her company.

“My organization had layoffs in December,” said the woman, who declined to be identified for fear of losing her job. “I was looking anyway, (but) it certainly confirms I should continue looking.”

Employers are expected to continue to slash jobs through much of 2009 amid a deepening U.S. recession. Data released on Friday showed the economy contracted at a 3.8 percent annual rate in the final three months of 2008, the worst result in nearly 27 years.

Economists say the first quarter of this year could be even worse, despite efforts by Congress and President Barack Obama to pass a stimulus bill to spur growth.

“The economy will contract by at least as much again in the first quarter and we don’t expect it to start expanding again until early next year,” economists at Capital Economics consultancy said in a research note.

BOSSES IN THE SAME BOAT

While some sectors of the economy are still hiring, finding a job when two million jobs have been lost in the last four months is an uphill battle.

“For every job I apply for I’m up against 200 people for one position. I am very qualified for what I’m applying for but in one instance, I didn’t even get an interview,” said the Kansas City woman, who feels she has been a finalist for a few jobs but not quite landed the position.

John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said just because it is an open secret that everyone in your workplace is scrambling to find a new job doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be discreet.

“You have to be careful about what you’re doing, be careful how you are perceived because you do have to hold on tight to your job, too,” Challenger said. “You have to realize that everyone is in the same boat -- your boss is just as vulnerable to layoff and just as likely to be looking as you are.”

Author Stark recommends using time outside normal work hours to look for another position, rather than risk being caught by your employer looking for another job.

“Looking for a job while you’re at work is not a good idea -- if people catch you at it they could see it as more of a reason to lay you off,” he said. “While you are at work you (should be) doing what needs to be done to produce results and demonstrate your value to your current employer.”

The Kansas City communications specialist said she is making “even doubly sure” that she works hard and keeps the job she has, even as she tries to find a better one. But with finances very tight, she is hoping Obama will come up with a plan to lighten the load.

“I do have three kids, a mortgage and personal debt ... while I’m not being foreclosed upon, I am having a difficult time paying the mortgage,” she said. “Because of the tight credit market, it’s difficult to get help at a bank to help with extra expenses. I admittedly am looking for what President Obama might have in store to help people like me.” (Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, editing by Anthony Boadle)

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