5 Ways to Kickstart Your Own Job Recovery

Don't expect the workforce to return to what it once was. Here's how to give yourself an edge.

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At TalentDrive, a three-year-old Chicago software start-up that allows recruiters to search thousands of databases for résumés that best match job openings, there's something called a "purple squirrel." A biochemist who speaks Portuguese and lives in Dubuque, Iowa, for example, is a purple squirrel—a candidate who quite possibly does not exist. During this recession, it seems as though many openings recruiters were charged with filling required purple squirrels. The jobs were so extremely specialized they were out of reach for most people. Now, TalentDrive's chief executive, Sean Bisceglia, has a good barometer for measuring the start of the recovery: when the nonspecialized jobs begin opening up again.

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Large-scale, easily measurable job creation is something all Americans are waiting for. But today's workers cannot expect the workforce to return to what it was. Many will need new, specialized skills to accomplish what companies require as they strive to do more with less. Job seekers will need to be strategic and—hardest of all—will have to stay positive, despite suffering extra-long stints of unemployment.

Here are five ways to give yourself an edge in the recovery:

Pursue science, math, or a technical certification. Despite the profusion of job seekers and nearly 10 percent unemployment, a recent study by Robert Half International found 37 percent of executives reporting that it's challenging to find skilled professionals today. Many companies are finding a mismatch between job seekers and available positions. Last year, Manpower reported that engineer ranked No.1 on a list of the 10 slots most difficult for American employers to fill. Nurses, technicians, skilled trades workers, IT staff, and machinists also made the rankings.

Technical skills and scientific knowledge seem to top the list of what employers want and workers lack. "Coming out of the downturn, employers increasingly are going to be looking for people with credentials or certifications," says Susan Traiman, director of public policy at Business Roundtable. "I would say that math and science, even in fields like healthcare, are almost prerequisites." Students who care about future earnings should pay attention: Of the 10 undergraduate degrees with the highest median starting salaries, seven are in engineering, according to a report by PayScale. The other three? Economics, physics, and computer science.

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Sweeping baby boomer retirements will hit some industries particularly hard. Many firms in the defense industry must hire Americans, but the graduate-level science courses that could prepare such employees are disproportionately attended by foreign students. And other companies that have made a practice of hiring skilled graduates from countries like China or India are now seeing many of those grads return to their native countries for job opportunities. Many of today's growth industries require a higher level of technical competence in quantitative reasoning, problem solving, and communication skills than they once did, and the United States simply does not have enough students who are getting solid math and science education in high school and then pursuing two- and four-year degrees in math, science, and engineering, Traiman says.

Take care in choosing a retraining program. While no one disputes the importance of training laid-off workers in skills that best reflect the needs of the nation's employers, retraining programs often struggle to accomplish the task. One study examining the benefits of Workforce Investment Act programs found that participants in the training program for disadvantaged adults initially had lower earnings than those who did not obtain training services, but their earnings caught up within 2½ years. The marginal benefits of training were found to exceed $400 in earnings for each quarter. Training program participants who had been laid off or "displaced," however, experienced an "appreciably smaller" return on their training, according to the authors of the IMPAQ International study. The participants who took training after losing their jobs actually earned less—for a couple of years—than a comparison group of workers with similar experience but no retraining. The participants' earnings ultimately showed no statistical advantage.