Eileen Wolkstein says she has never seen it this bad. A career coach in New York for 25 years, Wolkstein reports that many of her clients have been looking for work for six months, nine months, a year, even a year and a half now. Some of them are former senior-level managers who are conducting job searches for the first time in their lives, having been recruited or recommended for every post they ever had.
Staying focused and determined in the midst of an ever-worsening employment picture is one of the toughest career challenges out there, Wolkstein says. But there are ways you can keep your spirits up and increase your chances while sharpening your long-term hunt for work.
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The most important tool in any job seeker's kit is his personal network. A slew of studies show that between half and three-fourths of all employees found their jobs by networking, says Orville Pierson, senior vice president at the outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison and author of Highly Effective Networking: Meet the Right People and Get a Great Job. He points out that "in tough times, employers cut back on recruiting spending. Online listings, job fairs, campus recruiting and print ads all decrease. So networking becomes even more important."
Just because you've pursued everyone in your network once, don't stop tapping it, Wolkstein says. After several months have passed, circle back to your contacts. You may have been asking unfocused questions when you were at an earlier stage in your search. Since then, you've gathered new information and leads and new thoughts about what you want to do.
Don't hesitate to be specific about what they can do for you, either. "People don't know how to close the deal and ask for concrete help," Wolkstein observes. "Ultimately what you want from a good contact is not just names of three people you can reach out to; you want to ask the contact to get in touch with those three people on your behalf."
Whatever you do, don't abuse your network or get lazy about how and when you ask for help. "If you can't give a coherent, responsible answer to the question, 'How can I help you,' then you don't have the right to ask for help," Wolkstein advises. Always do your homework. Even with your closest contacts, "the better you present yourself, the more creative they are likely to be with their thinking on your behalf," she says. Don't forget, people put their own reputations at stake when they recommend you.
Consider new ways of expanding your network. Have you joined your alma mater's career bank? What about any new professional associations? Job seekers are starting to band together in regional job clubs to exchange tips, leads and tales of woe. Do some volunteer work; you'll feel good about yourself and make new contacts.
An extended job search is often depressing. How do you keep yourself going after your 99th rejection? You should periodically stop to reevaluate your goals and strategy, Wolkstein advises. The year mark is an obvious moment for reassessment. If you've been looking only for a full-time job, consider broadening your search to contract and part-time work. It could bolster both your résumé and your self-esteem, not to mention your bank account. If you haven't already thought about a fall-back plan, start doing that. What other kinds of jobs could interest you, outside of your chosen profession?
When you find yourself emotionally circling the drain, don't deny how bad you feel, Wolkstein adds. "You're on an emotional roller coaster," she says. "When you're down, you have to recognize that, and do something to get back up." Give yourself a break. Visit friends, look for vacation deals. One of Wolkstein's clients who endured an extended job search took trips once every four months, including a jaunt to Bermuda on discounted $200 round-trip plane tickets, a long family weekend in Puerto Rico and a driving trip to Colonial Williamsburg.
Exercise, good nutrition and a full social life all must be maintained when you're slogging through a long search, Wolkstein says. If you're married with a family, involve them. Explain how hard you're looking for work. "You mustn't start fixing up the closets and taking Aunt Lucy to the doctor because you're the only one at home," she says. "You have to spend your days as though you're a working person."
That's one of the hardest things about an extended job hunt: staying organized and disciplined. A career coach can help by talking you through different options and helping you set goals. But Wolkstein warns that she stops working with people if they don't make the most of her services. Don't just make a few calls the morning before you see your coach, she says. "A coach should be a sculptor, a lens, a re-evaluator."
"Hang in there," she concludes. "That doesn't sound very profound, but you have to do it."