When the market wobbles, you need key staff more than ever you did when it was booming
Life is strange in the world of employment today. But whether these are "recessionary" times depends on which sector you look at. Technology is down, but retail is up; new build is on hold, but refurbishment is back in; insourcing is out, but outsourcing is in, and so on.

And as we saw 10 years ago, an immense challenge exists for employers. How should costs be matched to revenues? Is this a short-term blip or a longer-term trend? Some companies are facing up to staff redundancies – but they are being grasped by most in a much more objective and businesslike manner than last time.

So which strategy will prevail? Which will deliver? The right business mix and sector focus is fundamental of course, but there is also a hunt for talent under way and a leaning towards the active trading-up of skills is now evident.

Typically, in downturns, the balance shifts from a supply-dominated market (job seekers have the whip hand) to a demand-led market (employer power). However, this time around it seems more sophisticated. We are all learning and the results are interesting and challenging.

It's easy to summarise what's going on. Those with good, general professional capabilities and lower to middle management skills are becoming less costly. The market always floods with "capacity top-up resources" (solid team members to you or me) in tough times.

However, the increased importance of people with the rarer and higher-level skills – that is, those with genuine selling capabilities in the buoyant sectors, those who are leading experts in their fields and particularly the professional business managers who can make a difference – really stands out today. The cost of retaining or "tempting" them is soaring.

The rationale is self-evident – but we must all remember that this downturn is only the second serious hit our industry has received since the seemingly dim and distant days of mandatory fee scales and passive business development. So there is still much to be learned and new winners may emerge: those that get the people issues right.

It is interesting quite how dramatic a difference there is today as all employers and key employees progress up a common learning curve.

Technology is down, but retail is up; new build is on hold, but refurbishment is back in; insourcing is out, but outsourcing is in …

Differential employment policies are being honed to address the needs of the "can dos" against the needs of the "not yets" or "can'ts" and a drive to maximise the staff pool containing the first of these is now apparent in most large firms.

As part of this, headhunters are really earning their fees by targeting and securing key managers, and in some cases key teams, they may be busier today than in the good times. Individuals also know their value – objectively. They can quickly determine what they're worth by the number of calls they are receiving now and by the attention they command where they are today.

For many individuals, the opportunity is clear and encouraging. By upskilling and focusing on the honing of their core business development and administrative skills, they have the prospect of turning the industry's ups and downs into a constant upward opportunity cycle. Continuous personal development is key: postgraduate qualifications from decades ago are past their sell-by date.

For companies, it is clear that downsizing indiscriminately and freezing headcounts are inadequate responses to a complex business threat. We need highly capable human resources teams to work with senior managers to ensure we secure and retain the best people. However, this has to be achieved tactically, so that every business can reorganise and acquire new skills through the downturn to emerge in the next cycle leaner and stronger.

Finally, we need to enhance the retention levels of our top staff. Equity ownership and interest are the best ways to do this, but profit share schemes, creative reward structures, challenging work and a sense of genuine involvement are equally effective, forcing corporate structures and traditional partnerships to move to more common employment terms.

Overall, we must avoid generalising – downturns need not be all bad. The best teams and the best ideas will be conceived now under sound leadership with the more reactive members of the herd ending up underpinning the new winners.