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08.15.11

Chatzky’s 6 Tips for the Jobless

Despite the scary unemployment numbers, there are plenty of companies hiring. Problem is, if you’re already out of work, many of them say they don’t want you. How to beat the odds.

A recent article in The New York Times hit on a disturbing trend. Hundreds of employers posting job listings on sites like Monster.com, Careerbuilder.com, and Craigslist are inviting only those “currently employed” or freshly laid off to apply. The rationale, the piece explains, is twofold. People who are first out the door may have been the less valued employees (not always true, by the way, as some workplaces have last-in-first-out policies). Also, there’s a belief that when you’re not working for a while, your skills may be rusty (again, not true in all cases).

But the bigger question is: What can the 6 million Americans who’ve been looking for work six months or longer do about it?

1. Work pro bono. You need something to put on your résumé, says Kelly Cleary, senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and it should be something that uses skills you put to work in your last job and that you want to plug in at your next one. But you’re not volunteering, you’re hiring yourself out as a pro bono consultant, she says. How do you maneuver this? “You’re out there networking already, looking for that full-time job. Part of that conversation needs to be: Are there any new projects you’re working on? Could you use an extra set of hands to do some of the research? Yes, you’re swallowing your pride a little bit because you’re offering to work on a project for free. But it gets you in the door (which puts you in mind when they’re ready to hire), and it also may help you get an up-to-date reference.”

2. Use the words “professional experience” on your résumé. You want to write a résumé that makes you look employed, even when you’re not, without lying. First, wipe out the heading that says “employment” and substitute “professional experience.” Then put that pro bono consulting gig—you’re an “independent consultant”—as well as any of the other things you’ve done in your previous work life under that category. You can mention that the opportunity is pro bono in the description of what you’ve done, or you can decide to wait and bring it up in a job interview. Some people have taken all the dates off their résumé entirely, but Cleary wouldn’t recommend it. “Not including dates, at the very least, raises a lot of questions,” she says.

“You don't have a pro bono gig. You're an 'independent consultant.' ”

3. Focus on the positive. The other thing to keep in mind as you’re rewriting your résumé is to focus on your successes. "Every entry on your résumé should tell a positive story,” says Chuck McConnell, managing director of Stewart, Cooper & Coon, an outplacement firm. That means something you’ve done well. You organized the most well-attended benefit, readied an article for publication in a prestigious journal, wrote a successful grant.  

4. Use LinkedIn wisely. Facebook may be the way you keep in touch with your social set, but for job purposes it’s LinkedIn all the way. Anyone who has the capability to hire right now is being barraged by candidates. Experts say what gets people in the door is some sort of personal connection. LinkedIn allows you to search for people who are from your alma mater, hometown, fraternity, sorority, church, and the like. (By the same token, make sure you’re only joining groups that are representative of the image you want to present. Employers are looking at those, too.) And be sure to update your profile to go along with your new résumé. “If you say one thing on your résumé and one on your LinkedIn profile, you could be falsifying information, for all I know,” says Pratik Roychoudhury, president of Career Transitions.

5. Practice Interviewing. If you’ve been out of the market for a while, you may want to practice interviewing, suggests McConnell. Ask a friend or, better yet, an acquaintance (you don’t want to be too comfortable) to sit in as the interviewer and videotape the interaction. You want to take note of your own verbal pauses, your own ability to make eye contact (or not), and how you otherwise come across so you can work on your presentation. You may even want to solicit feedback from friends in the field.

6. Keep your credit in shape. I know this seems to come out of left field—but it’s relevant. Employers are checking your credit these days, and a bad score may eliminate you from contention. Even if money is tight, you need to make your minimum payments on time, every time. And if you sense yourself getting into a situation where you’re unable to pay, raise the white flag with your creditors before you lapse. They may be able to provide some relief before reporting you delinquent to the credit bureaus.

With Maggie McGrath