A bit more than a year after being downsized at Charles Schwab, Laura Donahoe finally landed a position as a contract employee for PeopleSoft. For most of 2004, she will be tied up coordinating the content for an upcoming user conference in San Francisco. Then — unless a permanent position opens up — it's back to pounding the pavement.

After nine years in Schwab's San Francisco headquarters working as a broker, events manager, and marketing manager, Donahoe took a crash course in the realities of job seeking. She tried Internet job searches and temporary work. She followed up on countless dead-end leads and even volunteered to help with educational programs for the local chapter of Meeting Professionals International. She was getting pretty burned out on looking when a tip she received at an MPI mixer landed her the PeopleSoft assignment.

Donahoe has plenty of company. As signs of the country's economic recovery grow stronger — corporate profits surging, stock market rebounding — expectations are that the job market will follow suit, as in previous recoveries. But recent job growth figures offer mixed signals. Although job prospects are brightening for meeting planners, don't expect to find a job hunter's paradise around the corner. It's still a jungle out there.

Uncertain Times

The numbers are sobering. In the past three years, 3 million U.S. jobs have vanished. Now, even with the economy showing signs of life, employers seem skittish about staffing up again. In March, for example, the government reported 308,000 new jobs, but then, just few weeks later, the number of newly laid-off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits showed the biggest jump since late 2002.

Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show unemployment holding steady at a respectable 5.7 percent, but the bureau is quick to point out that that does not factor in an estimated 300,000 job seekers who have quit their job hunts and walked away from the pool of available workers.

Despite all this, meeting planners are feeling pretty optimistic. In the recently released FutureWatch 2004 survey from MPI and American Express, meeting planners projected 3 percent employment growth. The report was based on a survey of 2,075 meeting professionals, 54 percent of whom were planners from corporate, independent, consultant, and association segments, and 46 percent suppliers.

“Things are picking up, slowly but surely,” says Dawn Penfold, who specializes in placing meeting planners and is president of the Meeting Candidate Network, New York City. “We're seeing a lot more activity in the financial services market, which is a good sign.”

“The job market is going to balance itself out,” seconds Shira Harrington, senior recruiting consultant with Positions Inc. in Washington, D.C. She says that better times will open up opportunities for loyal staffers who have been itching to leave but had nowhere to go.

New Skill Sets

Whether or not purse strings start loosening up and more positions become available, landing a job or promotion is not likely to be the slam dunk it was in the mid- to late-1990s. For one thing, unless the economy sees another dot-com — like explosion, employers will retain the edge in hiring. And they have gotten more demanding. It's not enough to excel at planning conferences and events; increasingly, planners are being asked to contribute more to the overall success of the organization.

“The role of the meeting planner has changed,” says Mary Power, president and CEO of the Convention Industry Council. “It goes beyond logistics to the big picture and forecasting and meeting the goals of the organization.” The council is evaluating the questions on the Certified Meeting Professional exam, which it administers, to determine whether the test still accurately reflects the expected responsibilities of a meeting planner.

Increasingly, companies are seeing the benefit of having qualified people plan meetings and events, says Ashley Barron, general manager of Washington, D.C. — based Certified On-Site Meeting Professionals' meetings and events division. “The long-term impact of their skills on the bottom line and on the people who attend is receiving more attention.” As a result, the skills and education of candidates are under heavy scrutiny.

“A lot of clients call and say, ‘It has to be a CMP. Don't send me a planner — send me a CMP,’” Barron says.

Being able to show how you helped the budget will win you favor with your current employer or help to open new doors, explains Harrington. “If you can put on paper a dollar value and show your boss where you've saved money, that will make you more easily retained.” Not surprisingly, sharp contract-negotiation skills are at the top of many clients' wish lists, she says.

While many employers are seeking candidates with solid experience, planners who haven't made a career move in years — either because of complacency or slim pickings — may have trouble catching the eye of potential hirers. “Sometimes people may have experience, but it seems evident in the most recent years that the person hasn't accomplished much,” says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based international outplacement advisory company.

Staying Alive

For out-of-work corporate planners, contract work is an increasingly viable option — one that can sometimes lead to permanent employment (see article on page 21). “Temporary and contract placement is our strongest category,” says Barron, who has seen more employers willing to hire contract employees permanently as the economy has improved.

Donahoe says she would consider taking on contract projects for the long term because she values the autonomy. “I like being able to come in and do the work, being on my own, and not being involved in the internal corporate politics,” she says. But for many, the lack of benefits is a downside.

Many meeting planners have invested in their careers during the economic downturn by earning CMP status. In the past three years, Power says the CIC-administered program has grown 30 percent. Harrington considers certification to be a smart move for anyone who wants to beef up a resume. “Anytime you have initials after your name it looks positive — even if the employer doesn't know what it means.”

Lateral moves are another way to keep a corporate meeting planning career alive — but it's important to make them for the right reasons. A lateral salary move that exposes you to new challenges (bigger meetings, more educational programs, etc.) can make good sense. Moving out of meetings into other areas, such as marketing, can be difficult, “unless you can demonstrate you have other skill sets,” says Harrington.

Senior planners have the toughest time making job changes. “The higher you get up in the pyramid, the fewer the jobs,” says Penfold. “Those people stay where they are because there's no place for them to go.”

Many seasoned planners seeking jobs also exclude themselves from certain opportunities because they are unwilling to settle for a lower salary. For them, Barron counsels patience and an open mind. “Be a little flexible with the salary,” she says. “Everybody has bills to pay, but it will grow.”

CMI Can Help

For a comprehensive offering of job-hunting resources, including job listings, Web sites, a salary survey, helpful tips, and advice from planners on finding a job, see our Career Toolkit on our Web page at meetingsnet.com.

Job-Hunting Do's and Don'ts

  • DO start networking before you need a job. Jessica Kline, who recently landed a job as a planner with the International Physicians Network, started networking two years ago. It took her about two months to find her current position — helped by a colleague — with the Baltimore-based group purchasing firm.

  • DON'T rely on the Internet, advises John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, a Chicago-based international outplacement advisory company. “A lot of people spend far too much time e-mailing resumes. It's still just a piece of electronic information that usually gets put into a database,” he says.

  • DO try to reach the hiring manager instead of working through human resources.

  • DON'T bite off too much at once. If you're unemployed, this is not the time to quit smoking, for instance.

  • DO set aside time for hobbies or activities that you enjoy.

  • DO keep your resume updated.

  • DON'T be shy about using the phone. “I've become less and less bashful about following up,” says Ann Rebentisch, a CMP with about 15 years of planning experience, “not that I ever was.”

  • DO continue your education, even if it's just one course a year.