The latest government jobs report is bleak, weak, and dismal. But somehow, some of you are still managing to get hired. Last month I asked readers who had been out of work for a year or more to tell how they overcame the dreadful economy, the psychological battering, and the stigma of long-term unemployment to land a job. Dozens of you wrote back, from recent graduates to sixtysomethings, from those looking for entry-level work to people with decades of experience and advanced degrees.
You wrote about your efforts to fight despair and about the daunting hurdles the jobless face, including a pernicious new trend: job advertisements stating the unemployed need not apply. You told of the combination of perseverance, wiliness, and sometimes flat-out serendipity that resulted in returning to the workforce. And you acknowledged that in this job market, sometimes the “happy ending” comes with a massive pay cut. Here are your stories of pluck and luck—and your tips.
Will Work for Free
One woman wrote about how she and her laid-off mother both started volunteering almost full-time, which helped keep them sane, and also made them more marketable. After months of looking for work, the daughter, a lawyer who’d been let go from a small law firm, started offering legal services for free: “I volunteered for a small-business assistance organization, helping people start up their own businesses, and did a bunch of pro bono work for the local legal aid society. Being around other working people again on a daily basis, doing a new type of law I’d never done before, and not sitting around wallowing in self-pity really gave me an emotional boost.” After a year of unemployment, she landed a new job. Her mother, a former human resources manager, was out of work for two years. “My mother volunteered a lot of her time with my young daughter’s youth group. Eventually one of the other parents, who owns his own business, was impressed by her dedication and offered her a job.” It’s clerical work, and it doesn’t pay anywhere near what she used to make, but she was in danger of losing her house, and now she has some financial security.
Another lawyer, Kim Bender, wrote that she was unemployed or underemployed from the time she graduated from law school in 2006 until this spring. Eventually she started interviewing people she knew in hopes of identifying a more promising career path, and came to the conclusion that historic preservation was her true interest. While she reviewed legal documents to pay the bills, she started volunteering at a museum that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, working long hours, and taking on unglamorous assignments. She also started her own historic preservation blog, which led to several writing and research assignments. After six months of working for free at the museum, she became its business manager and lawyer. “My dream job,” she wrote.
I’m the Boss of Me
If no one will give you that full-time job, make your own. After graduating from college four years ago, Anne Clarke, 26, tried teaching for a year. She realized it wasn’t for her, and assumed finding another interesting job would be easy. Then the economy collapsed. So she started tutoring a few of her former students while she continued looking. At one point one of the mothers said to her, “So, did you ever end up finding a job, or are you just tutoring this year?” Instead of thinking of tutoring as something she did until she found a job, she decided to make tutoring her job—which required relearning calculus. She’s busy, able to pay her bills, and says the experience has been incalculable: “As a high-achieving, gold-star loving type of person, I’ve learned a lot about not relying on institutions/teachers/bosses for validation.”
Making the Cut Means Taking a Cut
One woman wrote in that her 50-year-old husband (“ancient in the advertising biz”) was laid off from his job on the creative side of the ad industry three years ago. He freelanced and began improving his abilities in digital media. “Every time he did something new such as directing his first commercial, he posted it on his website and emailed friends and colleagues about the work he was doing.” That led to a six-month freelance job with an agency, and finally a full-time job. It pays only 60 percent of his last salary, but he and his wife are ecstatic about the steady income and the opportunity to get health insurance.
A real-estate marketing manager, laid off from a well-paying job in New York two years ago, eventually moved to the South. A few months ago he replied to an ad for a small company looking for a marketing professional, and he got the job—at 25 percent of his previous salary. He agonized: “How was I going to support a family on this?” But he has since gotten two raises, learned a lot, and reconnected with his profession. He also acknowledges that having a job means that if he decides to find another one, he won’t have to deal with the unfair but real taint of looking while unemployed.
Network, Network, Network
Amy McFarland lost her job as an advertising copywriter for the Army in 2009. After months of dead ends she fought depression by forcing herself to set up regular lunches or coffees with friends and even friends of friends who were still working. “In February, I met a woman who was a church friend of an old roommate. I had been hesitant to meet with her because she is a freelance writer, and I really did not want to become a freelancer.” But the woman mentioned she sometimes heard about job openings and would keep McFarland in mind. A week later she forwarded something—a fundraising and writing position at a large hospital system. McFarland applied and starting working again last May.
Being an employment recruiter didn’t prevent Daniel Rigano from losing his financial services industry job in 2008. In the more than two years he was out of work he scraped by on unemployment and short-term contract work. “I’m a professional recruiter, so I know and understand the importance of keeping close contact with your personal and social networks,” he wrote. One of those contacts was a guy who had been laid off from a company where Rigano was doing some freelance information technology recruiting. That friend landed another job fairly quickly and passed on Rigano’s résumé when he heard there was an opening. “I sent out hundreds, if not thousands of job applications, but really, the only way I’ve ever found work is through a friend or a friend of a friend.”
Over the past several years, one telecommunication lawyer was laid off five times because of firm mergers or closures. During the 15 months of her last unemployment, she used email to stay in close touch with a group of friends who are current on industry news. To keep from sounding like a pest, she would write: “Hi, it’s my weekly check-in. Any job openings at your office? I’ll interpret silence as a negative.” One friend notified her immediately that the government office where she worked was lifting a hiring freeze; another friend recommended her for an opening there. “In all the layoffs,” she wrote, “the social contacts I maintained clued me into new jobs.”
Temporary Isn’t Insanity
The single most common way people told of landing that full-time, permanent job was taking a temporary one first. Ellen Winsett used to work as a fulfillment manager—making sure customers’ orders arrived on time—when she lost her job in the Great Recession and wound up out of work for 18 months. She sent out hundreds of job applications with no response, but one day a job search engine where she had posted her résumé sent her a notification of a six-month job with the gas company. “After doing a lot of thinking I finally decided that any job is a job, even if it was only for 6 months, so I applied,” Winsett wrote. She landed it, and says it’s the best job she has ever had. The company has since extended her employment twice, and now she is up for a permanent position.
When Allyson Churches’ husband, Kevin, who worked in tech support, lost his job, months of fruitless searching (“He didn’t even get a call back from night stocking jobs!”) made it hard to keep going. But they had four kids to support, so she kept scanning the job sites for him. One day she saw a posting that sounded perfect. There was one drawback, though: The job was only for six weeks. He applied anyway, got the position, they later extended his contract, and like Winsett, he’s in line for a full-time slot. (His experience suggests another lesson: When you’ve become so discouraged it’s hard to continue, have a loved one look for you.)
Every Day, in Every Way, I’m Getting Better and Better
It’s hard for people to acknowledge that their original profession is unlikely to bounce back, or that their old skills are unlikely to get them a new job. Keri Peardon was laid off from her job as a legal assistant for a commercial real estate development company in August 2008. After a year of looking she read that some states had free retraining programs for job-seekers. “I was able to get into a trade school to learn web/graphic design,” she wrote. “This seemed to give a boost to my résumé, both because I had fresher information on it, and because I was adding numerous software applications to my list of skills.” She started getting interviews and landed a job with a general practice attorney in July of last year.
I heard from two people who switched from being laid-off advertising copywriters to full-time medical writers and editors. One man took a one-weekend course in medical editing, then got short-term editing jobs through a temp agency. He updated his profile on LinkedIn (many people wrote that LinkedIn was a godsend) and revised his résumé: “I labeled myself a ‘freelance medical editor’ with all my temp gigs listed as if I were a regular freelancer at those companies. This was crucial to not appearing to be unemployed.” He landed a full-time job in the medical field 21 months after losing his last full-time job in advertising.
After fruitlessly applying for a receptionist job, one middle-aged woman was told that she had been one of 400 applicants. So she went back to school to become a medical assistant. Even with her new skills, she found that most jobs required at least a year of experience. Finally, she heard through her college placement office about a two- to four-week “paid interview.” (Remember, temp jobs are your friend.) She jumped at it, and within a week, she had converted it to a full-time position. She wrote, “Be willing to go in a direction that you had not thought of previously. A midlife career change like mine can be scary but ultimately the best thing you can do for yourself!”
One feature of this downturn is that, thanks to the proliferation of online job sites, people can find out about jobs across the country and send out applications in massive numbers. But this development is not without a psychological downside: After applying for hundreds or even thousands of positions, many people reported that they never got a response.
Tom Stephan, who’s in public relations, advises having a regular schedule for scanning the sites. Given how inundated employers are, he says they may never look at all the résumés that come in, so it’s important to be in the initial batch. He also “key-word optimized” his résumé, customizing it for different positions and industries, so that an algorithm (and eventually, with any luck, a real live person) would flag him as having relevant experience.
One woman wrote that her husband was closing in on two years of unemployment when he decided to do some end-runs around the search engines. Often at the big job sites the name of the hiring company is not listed. But this job seeker, using the limited information available, identified several of the companies. Then he bypassed the job search site and sent a résumé and cover letter directly to the person each company’s website listed as being in charge of hiring. This resulted in two interviews and two offers. One interviewer said had the man not applied directly, the company would never have received his résumé from the job search site because he lacked the type of college degree they had made a requirement for screening purposes.
Read Any Good Books Lately?
Everyone knows the adage about how the unemployed should consider looking for a job to be their job. But looking for a job is a truly terrible job: lonely, unpaid, demeaning. It’s easy to understand why people get so disheartened they contemplate “quitting” this job. One out-of-work lawyer said she was able to keep at it by organizing her day so that looking for a job was only one part of her life. “Have a schedule that includes your social contacts, exercise, work around the house, and reading. Remember that they’ll ask you in the interview what you’ve been doing.” She pointed out that many interviewers ask job seekers to name the last book they read, in an effort to “weed out the jerks, the lazy, and the crazy.” So in addition to keeping you sane, immersing yourself in good books might even make you a more appealing job candidate.
That’s My Final Answer
Kate Kobs was two years out of college when she lost her sales job in 2008. She figured it wouldn’t take her long to find another, since she was an enthusiastic new grad willing to take a low starting salary. She applied for jobs relentlessly, but as a year out of work turned into two, like many of the long-term unemployed, she started doubting her own worth. That got an unexpected boost when she applied to and was selected to appear on a game show. Finally, after more than two years of unemployment, she went to a job fair where she landed three interviews. This time she had a secret weapon. When interviewers asked her what had she been doing since she was out of work, they were impressed when she was able to direct them to this YouTube video of herself winning $50,000 on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? She got two job offers and is now selling advertising for cable TV.