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On the one hand, the newspaper headlines feature mordant layoff news. On the other, most American companies say that they still can't find enough workers.

So if you ever have to lose a job, let it be now. New positions are cropping up faster than old ones are being chopped. The employment rate -- meaning the portion of working-age people holding jobs -- remains at a historic high.

Granted, the job market isn't as fab as it was last spring. The rate of growth in jobs is slowing down. It might take a little longer to find the kind of work you want.

In manufacturing, the number of jobs has been shrinking since April 1998. That's a problem that can't be blamed entirely on the economic slowdown.

The most likely reason for long-term factory job loss is the tremendous gain the plants have made in their productivity, says economist Leo Troy of Rutgers University in Newark, N.J. It takes fewer workers to make the goods the market wants -- be it cars and steel or computers and chips.

The service industries, by contrast, are scooping up people as fast as they can find them, and for good jobs: nurses, teachers, managers, stockbrokers, bankers, real-estate agents, engineers.

As for the techies fleeing the dot-bombs, plenty of companies are eager to recruit you. Every industry needs better information technology. Clueless managers desperately need employees who've been inducted into IT mysteries.

If unemployment rises to 5 percent, the country would lose about 1 million jobs. Even then, you'd enjoy a better job-hunting climate than existed in any year in the 1980s and most of the '90s. How bad is that?

No one feels good after being dumped. The loudest boo-hooing seems to be coming from young people who saw their Internet gravy boats sink.

But in any life and at any age, jobs will come and go. Layoffs occur continually in this flexible New Economy, as businesses merge, downsize or fail. The wise think about how to handle a job search in advance:

Prepare, prepare. Go to trade shows and conventions, collect business cards, make more business friends, do favors for colleagues. In times of compulsory job-hopping, a habit of networking pays. Your associates know you as a bustling worker, not as a sad sack seeking help.

In the 1990-91 recession, working people dreaded incoming calls from their job-hunting friends. But now, talent is in short supply. Their firms might be looking for employees with exactly your skills.

Byte the bullet. That means combing your office computer for personal information and taking it home. If you're fired, you might be given just 30 minutes to pack and leave.

Size up your skills. A generation of factory workers has been gradually training itself for technical work. Business schools are developing management courses for the other New Economy -- health care and similar work associated with families and aging.

Economist Irwin Kellner of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., is seeing new interest in MBA degrees. "Students aren't so sure they'll start companies and become instant millionaires," he says. "They're thinking more about marketable skills."

Don't dawdle. People who lose their jobs often make only token job-hunting efforts until their severance pay runs out, says John Challenger of the New York outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

But the longer you're out of work, the more potential employers will wonder why. In this job market, good people are snapped up fast.

Don't fantasize. Workers newly on the street often think about changing careers. Having lost a job, they think their old industry is dead. Or they think it's no fun anymore.

A change of career can make sense for people in their 20s. But the older you get, the less realistic it becomes, Challenger says. You can change industries but cannot easily change your function or expertise.

That is, unless you retire early with a pension, health insurance and savings. You need financial security while you train for something new.

Bring money. We tend to forget about building a cache of emergency cash -- so we're caught flat when an emergency occurs. Layoff decisions are made with lightning speed today. To be ready for change, you always need enough on-hand money to get through at least three months without pay.

Don't worry. Most of the people who lose their jobs will find new positions soon. The country appears to be in an economic pause, not a grinding recession or era of general displacement and fear.

Employers need hands. You just need cash while you look around.

NEXT SUNDAY: Layoffs and your personalfinances.

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