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Experts Offer Advice To Unemployed In Tough Job Market - Part One

By Heather O'Neill
November 13, 2009

Whether you are a recent graduate, a seasoned professional between jobs because of a layoff, or reentering the workforce after taking time off to be a stay-at-home mom, this is a challenging market.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is taking job seekers an average of 6.5 months to find a new position, the longest wait since the Bureau started keeping track back in 1948.

The waiting can seem endless and it is easy to get discouraged. These are tough times, but don't fret. There are many ways to stay relevant, upbeat and proactive during even a prolonged job search, so many in fact that we needed to make this a two-part series.

In Part One, you'll find practical tips for cleaning house, from creating an unemployment budget to polishing your resume and online image.

In Part Two, you'll find tips on keeping your spirits up, your energy high and idea to employ when you feel your enthusiasm for your job search waning while you wait for your dream job.

Create a "Temporary Unemployment Budget"

One of the best ways to ease a restless mind during a period of unemployment is to make sure you are living within your means, according to Cathy Curtis, CEO of Curtis Financial Planning. Curtis, who specializes in financial planning for women, knows that the word budget isn't always a fun one. "No one likes to feel deprived, but a key thing to remember when you are going through a period of unemployment is that it is only temporary. Unless you are completely unemployable, which very few people are, you will find gainful employment again."

With that in mind, Curtis believes that a crucial first step is to cut your expenses to the bone. "Discretionary expenses, such as for dining out, movies, concerts, personal care such as massages, facials, mani-pedis, etc. are the easiest to cut out Start looking for entertainment that is free, and there is plenty of it: concerts in parks, free nights at museums, hiking, having friends over for a potluck meal. The goal is to not accumulate more debt than is necessary when you don't have a paycheck coming in."

Curtis calls this a "Temporary Unemployment Budget," in other words a cash flow worksheet detailing every expense.

"This is a great exercise for everyone, not just the temporarily unemployed," Curtis said. "Getting clarity about your spending is the first step to developing a realistic budget and a workable financial plan. Make it a challenge to yourself to stick with it, then when you get that great job, you can create a new budget called, "My Living Within My Means Budget" and challenge yourself to stick with that."

And Curtis cautions, if for any reason you must be late with a payment of any kind, let your creditor know.

"It is amazing how things can be worked out with a little communication," she said.

Revamp Your Resume

Back in the day, having a gap in your employment record, or a resume full of short stints at a number of companies was a red flag for potential employers, indicating that you might be unreliable. In today's market, with so many people unemployed, the rules have changed.

According to Roberta Chinsky Matuson, a job Search mentor and the president of Northampton, Mass.-based Human Resource Solutions, you shouldn't worry about a gap between jobs or between school and work, if you are a recent graduate.

"You'd have to be living under a rock to not understand that many good people are currently out of work and have been for months, due to no fault of their own," she said. "Employers know this. Instead [during an interview] focus the conversation on what you've been doing to keep your skills updated."

Tammy Kabell, a career strategist, job search coach and owner of Career Resume Consulting, recommends changing your resume slightly from a chronological format to a skills-based resume to make the gap less apparent.

"A one page functional resume focuses on what skills you bring to a position that your competition doesn't, [and your] achievements that back up those skill sets. It tells what you can do for an employer, and not just a list of everywhere that you've been and everything that you've done. With this type of resume, the employment information is listed at the bottom, almost like a footnote, so that by the time the hiring manager gets to that section, they are already pre-sold on wanting to contact you."

However, Kabell continued, "You still need to be prepared to answer any questions about the gap in an interview. My advice is to tell the truth, whatever it is, and don't be apologetic."

Take Time to Rebrand Yourself Online

When her career as an entertainment broadcaster and film reviewer stalled several years ago, Lisa Johnson Mandell realized that she needed to take matters into her own hands by rebranding herself. She started by freshening up her resume and networking but a chunk of her reinvention happened online.

This is an important step for any job seeker, but it might be a step that is most crucial for recent graduates, whose online presence may include information and photos that would be unappealing to potential employers.

"Start by doing an outsider review of your online persona, or get a trusted friend to do it for you," said Karen Watts who teaches for Bellingham Technical College in the Business and Professional Development division of Continuing Education, and who also runs a private consulting and coaching practice. "The goal is to have your virtual presence free of rude comments, embarrassing photos or any hint of legal troubles. Clean up your online accounts and secure the super personal with passwords or friends only filters.

For older job seekers, like Mandell, the issue may be to freshen--rather than tone down--an online presence. In her book Career Comeback--Repackage Yourself to Get the Job You Want, which will be released by Hachette in January, Mandell describes how she rebranded herself online by creating a blog site, "that highlighted all the unique features I couldn't include on my resume. It showed people I was web savvy, and my writing about current topics in my field showed potential employers I was on the cutting edge."

To finish off the rebrand, Mandell had new photos taken of herself to post on her blog site, as well as on her Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles.

Her "Career Makeover" was so successful that it not only netted her several full-time job offers, but her project was featured in the Wall St. Journal, on morning news shows and on Oprah.com.

Network Like Crazy

While being unemployed might feel like a good time to stay in your pajamas for days on end, being out in the world in the form of networking is key to the ultimate success of your job hunt.

"Network like crazy, both on-line and face-to-face," Cathy Curtis said. "I find Linked-In to be the best social networking site for job-hunting. Link with as many people as you can. Some of the features that Linked-In offers require an upgraded account [but] these features are invaluable in a job hunt and are probably worth buying."

On LinkedIn, for example, with an upgraded account you can conduct searches for local people in your line of work and request informational interviews.

Curtis, an avid Twitter user, also recommends Tweeting about your job hunt. "Use a #hashtag to find people who are in a similar place and share tips and strategies and leads," she said.

And don't forget to connect face-to-face. Go to professional association lunches or dinners in your field and let others know that you are job hunting. Get out of the house everyday, even if it is just to scour job boards on your laptop from a coffee shop instead of from your sofa. Keeping your social skills sharp is important and it is difficult to maintain these if the only living this you speak to is your cat.

Another important tip: Don't just show up at a networking event. Remember that you are there to mingle.

"I often hear job seekers complain how they've been going to all these events and haven't really met anyone who can help them in their search," said Roberta Chinsky Matuson, a job search mentor and the president of Northampton, Mass.-based Human Resource Solutions. "These are also the same people who tell me they've stood next to the bar the entire evening."

Be Open to Other Options

One of the best ways to stay viable during a long job search? Accepting freelance, contract or even volunteer work when it is offered.

While your long-term goal might be to have a full-time job, experts agree that accepting freelance offers is a terrific way to stay active in your field, fill gaps in your resume and network at the same time.

Sara Sutton Fell, the CEO of FlexJobs and an employment and telecommuting expert, believes that even a short-term job can reinvigorate a job search and buy a job seeker some peace of mind.

"Keep an open mind," Fell reminded. "Even if you are ultimately looking for a full-time job, consider telecommuting, freelance, and part-time jobs. These jobs can give you some income until you land the job you want and they are often flexible enough that they won't get in the way of your job search.

"Also, consider volunteering and interning," she continued. "(Especially for recent graduates) these are both great opportunities to network, learn and practice skills, and help you feel valuable."

If you are working on a tight budget and are concerned about spending money on gas or public transportation for a job that doesn't pay, Fell suggests asking about telecommuting options if you are considering volunteering and interning.

"Telecommuting means you can save money on commuting and other related expenses," she said. "You can also reduce your stress related to commuting and broaden the geographic areas where you can look for opportunities. It's also green!"

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