As the Senate considers yet another extension of unemployment benefits, it has become increasingly clear that the biggest issue in the recession-charred job market involves a little less than 7 million people: the "long-term unemployed." These are the workers who have been unemployed—and actively looking for work—for at least six months, and often for much, much longer. Last month, they made up nearly half of the entire pool of unemployed. And as time goes by, this group's struggle to find work only becomes more challenging.
The 6.8 million long-term unemployed aren't all from the manufacturing lines in Flint—they cross industries and sectors, ages and education levels. Before the start of the recession, the financial services sector had among the lowest average durations of unemployment, at less than 16 weeks, according to an analysis by the National Employment Law Project. Today, financial services ranks No. 1 for average unemployment, with an average stint of 33 weeks of unemployment among the jobless in the sector.
If you're among those who have been out of work for many months, or a year (or more) here are some strategies for getting back to work now:
First, stop blaming yourself. Sure, some companies are hiring again. And maybe your friend who lost his or her job two months ago just found a new one. But the job market is still in pretty lousy shape and employers are still, by and large, sitting it out. Last month, a survey of small business owners found that only 18.4 percent believed the recovery would continue into 2011. "Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent saw no benefit from the stimulus bill," says Al Angrisani, founder of Angrisani Turnarounds, which has published the monthly survey over the last six months. Business owners cited a range of new issues: They are starting to see price increases from vendors; they're feeling for the first time the impact of state and local tax increases; there's still little or no access to credit. "This has been the heart of the American economy," says Angrisani, who served as assistant labor secretary under President Reagan.
Stop wasting your time. As time has gone by, your job search may have gone from a targeted pursuit of relevant positions to an anything-goes, resume free-for-all, as you apply for just about anything within your commuting area. You've got nothing to lose, you figure, by sending your resume in response to every available opening, when it takes so little extra effort online. But some employers have become so overwhelmed by the process of sifting through irrelevant resumes that they've begun to construct discriminatory filters—even refusing resumes from the unemployed. While such a response is extreme, the effort put into flinging your resume around the web can be better directed. "There's nothing that takes the place of a strategic and targeted job search," says Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project. "You will be taken seriously for the jobs for which you are truly well qualified."
Spend most of your time making new friends. Job seekers generally have the best luck finding a job through their friends and contacts, given that nearly a third of external hires are found through referrals. Networking is even more important for people over age 50, according to a study by the Impact Group. New friends can be found in person and quickly connected with online—thank you, Facebook and LinkedIn. Once you've made an online connection, there are easy applications to use to search for jobs where friends work. Check out the Facebook and LinkedIn integrations offered by SimplyHired.com and Indeed.com.
Pitch yourself to your last employer. When the economy was in the pits early last year and late 2008, employers were cutting payrolls with hatchets rather than scalpels. Many companies cut too deep, and as demand has picked up in the nascent recovery, employees have struggled to keep up with their workloads. Still, employers are hesitant to take on permanent hires, so they've been using temps. This presents an opportunity for you, given your institutional knowledge of your last employer and your willingness to take on freelance or contract work. "Going back to former companies and even former bosses or coworkers, wherever they might have gone, is a great strategy," says John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. These people know you and your work. That freelance assignment can help you fill a hole in your resume.
Find a project. You may not find paid work, but that doesn't mean this time is a complete wash. "Always be working on projects, even if you aren't paid for them," says Dan Schawbel, author of Me 2.0.: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success. "Don't walk into an interview with a period of no work activity." Put your energy into non-profit work or a favorite charity. Blog intelligently on a topic you're passionate about. Pitch an adult unpaid internship to an employer. While money pays the bills, it doesn't need to validate your work: Remember that employers don't have salary records from your previous jobs, Schawbel says.
See, hiring managers understand that the last couple of years have created a kind of traffic jam—lots of people looking for work and very few companies hiring has left many job seekers at a standstill. Nevertheless, "if you've been out of work for a year and can't show anything you've done with that time, that's going to concern me," says Alison Green, chief of staff at a Washington-area nonprofit and U.S. Newscontributing blogger. "The most important thing out-of-work job-seekers can do is to find something useful to do with the time—volunteer, take classes, get active in your professional society."
Practice interviewing. Most Americans tend to stop practicing for things after college, when speech class requirements and stage plays disappear into the ether of adulthood. But holding mock interviews—however silly it may feel—is an important step in job-search preparation, particularly if you've been out of work for a long while. Hiring managers often find that some job candidates appear beaten down by their unemployment. "Keep your interview skills sharp," Conti says. Practice describing what excites you about the position and the employer.
Sell, sell, sell yourself, you big discounted talent! Some employers may wonder why you've been out of work for a year or more, but others may be open to the possibility that this is an advantage. First of all, if you've taken a job at Starbucks just to tide you over, don't hide it. Some employers may see it as quite honorable. And some companies may see you as an opportunity to get skills and talents at a discount (if you're willing to cut your salary requirements). Also, companies may just believe you when you tell them that you will do everything you can to succeed at this job so that you never have to be unemployed again. "They might think that, 'this person is going to go flat-out to prove that hiring them is the best decision I ever made,'" Challenger says.
Act hopeful (whether or not you feel like it). A job seeker's hope that they'll find work (at some point in the next month) declines as their stint of unemployment grows longer, according to a recent Gallup poll. Among those out of work for four weeks or less, the hopeful make up 71 percent. After six months of unemployment, the percentage of hopeful job seekers falls to 36 percent. It's an obvious challenge for someone who has faced a litany of disappointments over the past year (or two) of job seeking to put on a happy face. But studies show that a positive attitude is closely correlated with success at finding a job. Negativity compounds the challenge of joblessness for the long-term unemployed. It's hard to get the kind of fresh-faced enthusiasm for the search that a new job seeker might have, but that very difference gives them an edge.