The longer you've been unemployed and engaged in a job search, the harder it gets to land a new job, according to career and staffing experts. Job seekers who've been out of work for, say, a year or more, face multiple challenges. Not only are they competing with employed professionals, they're also battling with job seekers who've been out of work for less time. For example, when two candidates have the same skills and experience, the candidate who's been out of work for three months is more appealing to an employer than the candidate who's been out of work for a year, says Stu Coleman, a general manager with staffing firm Winter, Wyman & Co. That's because employers, many of which have had to run lean over the past two years, lack the training resources to bring new employees up to speed. They want "plug and play" candidates whose skills aren't rusty and who can quickly acclimate to a new environment, he adds.
For executives, a year is not an usually long time to be out of work. In fact, the average length of unemployment for executives is nine months to a year, even in a good economy, according to Howard Seidel, a partner with Essex Partners, which provides career coaching services to executives.
Finding a new job can easily take an executive 12 months for a variety of reasons. For one, executives often have non-compete clauses in their severance agreements that prevent them from going to work for a competitor for a year, says Seidel. As well, there are fewer executive jobs than line jobs, and employers take their time vetting candidates for executive positions because they are so costly to fill (there are often legal fees and recruiting fees associated with hiring an exec).
Despite the mounting pressures job seekers at all career levels face as their unemployment wears on, hope for finding a new job is not lost. "A year itself is not a mark that should designate panic," says Seidel. "Being out [of work] for a year in this economy doesn't mean you're never going to get a job again."
Indeed, CIO.com's job search blogger Mark Cummuta landed his dream job after nearly three years of unemployment. Arun Manasingh found a new CIO job after a 17-month job search, and Henry Hirschel's unemployment ended at 11 months when he started a new IT management job.
The trick to overcoming the challenges associated with finding a job when you've been out of work for a long time is to stay focused, upbeat and engaged. Seidel and Coleman offer 10 specific ways unemployed job seekers can stay competitive in a long-term job search.
1. Benchmark yourself
Seidel advises unemployed professionals to evaluate their job searches at regular intervals, such as the six-month, nine-month and 12-month marks. He suggests they ask themselves the following questions, intended to help them diagnose specific problems with their job search (if they exist) or specific barriers that are preventing them from getting interviews or job offers:
1. What's going well in my job search?
2. What needs changing?
3. Am I getting responses to my résumé?
4. Am I getting first interviews but not second interviews?
5. Am I making it to the final rounds of interviews but not getting job offers?
2. Perfect your résumé and cover letter
If you're a member of the long-term unemployed population, the length of your unemployment already puts you at a disadvantage in your job search. Don't aggravate your situation by sending a generic résumé and cover letter to prospective employers. Both documents should specifically address the job for which your vying, says Coleman. He realizes this is basic advice, but he reiterates it because job seekers continue to make the mistake of firing off canned résumés and cover letters.
Your résumé and cover letter should also be free of spelling and grammatical errors. Coleman says employers are dismissing candidates on the basis of errors in their résumé or cover letter. If you've been out of work for a year but your résumé is perfect while the résumé of a candidate who's been out of work six months is not, you may have an advantage over the "fresher" candidate," adds Coleman. (For more résumé tips and advice, see How to Craft the Perfect IT Resume.)
3. Make it easy for employers to find you
When you update your résumé, save it with your first and last name, as opposed to "myresume2010.doc," Coleman suggests. By saving your résumé (and your cover letter) with your first and last name, employers can more quickly and easily find documents from you on their hard drives.
The same goes for your e-mail address. If your personal email address is something like firstname.lastname@example.org, it's time to set up a new account for your job search - one that features at least your last name. This way, employers can quickly find correspondence from you in their email inboxes.
4. Work in some capacity
Since employers' main concern about job seekers who've been unemployed for a long time is that they're damaged goods who've lost their edge and the sense of urgency that corporate life requires, long-term job seekers would serve themselves well by engaging in some kind of work.
"By month four, five or six [of your job search], if you don't have a permanent, full-time job, you should look to get a contract position or do some consulting or volunteer work," says Coleman.
Picking up some kind of work shows employers you're active, gives you a story to tell during job interviews about what you've been doing during your unemployment, and it provides you with some income so that you don't feel so pressured to take any job, adds Seidel.
Coleman advises job seekers to add this interim work, even if it's unpaid, to their résumés. "People may think it's not professional to list volunteer work in their résumé, but you should mention it somewhere," he says. "It shows you're industrious."
5. Let employers know you're in demand
If you've been a serious contender for jobs and have received job offers that for one reason or another didn't work out, Seidel recommends subtly communicating those facts to prospective employers. "Employers like when candidates are sought after," he says.
An appropriate time to mention job offers you've had or other job opportunities you may have in the works is during a job interview, says Seidel, when the hiring manager asks you what you've been doing or if you have anything currently going on. Then, you can casually mention that you've been on several job interviews and/or had a couple of job offers that you unfortunately had to decline, he says. You might say you had to turn them down because the positions were out of state and you didn't want to relocate or because you didn't think the position was the best match.
6. Don't appear desperate
Never give the impression to prospective employers or to people in your network that you're desperate for a job. Desperation is not an attractive trait, especially for executives.
"When an employer calls and asks, 'Can you do something next week,' don't say, 'Sure, give me a time - the whole week's open,'" says Seidel. "Don't play hard to get, but demonstrate that you've got some things going on."
7. Make a good first phone impression
If a prospective employer calls you in response to your résumé or cover letter and reaches you at home when your dog is barking or your kids are bouncing off the walls, quickly excuse yourself so that you can get to a quiet room where you can take the call, says Coleman. If you don't move to a quiet place, you risk giving the hiring manager, HR manager or recruiter the impression that you don't care enough about the opportunity to make a good first impression, he adds.
8. Be prepared to answer tough interview questions
Hiring managers ask tougher questions of candidates who've been out of work for a year or more, says Seidel. They'll probe you on the circumstances surrounding your departure from your last job and what you've been doing since then, he says.
Such tough questions provide you with an opportunity to address an employer's concerns, provided your answers are credible and demonstrate that you're active and engaged.
Credible answers to the question of why you left your last job include:
- A new CEO came on board and he brought in a new management team.
- A merger or acquisition eliminated my position.
- Philosophical differences between you and your manager.
- Bad answers express anger and spite. Some examples:
- I have no idea why I was let go.
- The CEO/My manager was incompetent.
"You need to frame your departure [from your last job] in the best possible light," says Seidel. "You need to convey that you're competent, good at what you do, have a strong legacy in terms of the work you've done in the past and have a lot of integrity."
9. Reconsider your options
Early on during a job search, job seekers tend to be selective about the role they want and the location they wish to stay in, says Seidel. As their unemployment wears on, he recommends they ask themselves at regular intervals (whether at six months, nine months or a year) if it's time to expand their job searches in some way.
"The single most effective thing you can do to expand the number of job opportunities is to expand your geography," says Seidel. "People engaged in national searches tend to land faster [than executives engaged in regional searches]."
Besides considering relocation, job seekers should ask themselves at the year mark about other titles they might be willing to take, slightly different roles they think they could move into, or completely new career paths they could follow.
"This is not to say you have to start a national search at a year of unemployment," says Seidel. "These are just exploratory questions you can consider if you need to give yourself a longer runway."
10. Don't hold out for the perfect job
Coleman notes that some job seekers hold out for the perfect job, which only prolongs their unemployment, and he cautions against this urge.
"Remember that your last job wasn't your perfect job forever," he says. "Maybe a job you've been offered is fine for the next few years."
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