The Four Secrets to Career Success in a Jobless Recovery

[Editor's Note: The first in an occasional series that looks at unique strategies for navigating the jobless recovery.]

For the millions of Americans right now looking for a job, the latest batch of employment statistics paint a rather grim picture.
After all, just consider that:

  • The U.S. unemployment rate just spiked to 9.4% for May, up from 8.6% in April, meaning the nation's jobless rate is now at its highest level in more than 25 years.
  • Throw in the fact that the current jobless rate does not include people who have taken part-time jobs below their skill levels to make ends meet (a little-referred-to situation called underemployment), and the "real" unemployment rate soars to a staggering 16.4%.
  • More than 6 million workers have lost their jobs since the recession started in December 2007, meaning one in 20 jobs has disappeared - many of them forever.
  • A total of 14.5 million Americans are now unemployed. The number of long-term unemployed (those without jobs for 27 weeks or more) recently increased by 268,000 to 3.9 million and has tripled since the start of the recession.

But that's not the worst of it. Experts are projecting an economic rebound that will take hold late this year - early next year at the latest. At the same time, however, economists are starting to whisper about a "jobless recovery," an upturn in which the economy and corporate profits advance, but virtually no new jobs are created to overcome the years of layoffs that preceded the rebound. In fact, the U.S. Federal Reserve said the U.S. economy might not return to its "normalized" unemployment rate of roughly 5% until 2013, Argus Research Chief Economist Richard Yamarone wrote in a recent report.

So while there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel for the economy in general, the outlook is somewhat more challenging for those who are unemployed, underemployed, or who are currently working but who still harbor dreams of "career advancement." As bleak as this all may sound, jobseekers (both employed and unemployed) shouldn't be deterred: With a sound strategy, and four simple secrets, it's still possible to survive - and even thrive - in a jobless recovery. We've labeled them as the "Four P's" - Plan, Pinpoint, Pounce and Persevere.

Planning to Win

It's a well-worn adage, but it's also a truism: Those who fail to plan are essentially just planning to fail. Have a plan to keep your life on track while you see that new career opportunity.

When "joblessness" strikes, it usually does so in one of two ways.  It either catches you completely off guard - often with a hastily called series of employee meetings, or that Friday afternoon summons to the boss' office - or you've seen the handwriting on the wall (or in your company's financial statements), and so you knew it was only a matter of time. Either way, if you let the search for a new job consume 100% of your life, you may end up losing more than just a regular paycheck.

By far, the largest consequence when you lose a job is the loss of regular income. Having a plan to deal with this change is just as important as getting a new job.

To create this plan, start by asking this question:  Do you have enough cash on hand, or can you access the needed funds, to pay all your bills, while you're looking for a job?

If your answer is "yes," congratulations.  You're much better off than the majority of people losing jobs right now.  For the purposes of this article, go ahead and skip to the second "P" - Pinpoint.

But if you're like most unemployed Americans, you depend on a regular paycheck to meet your financial needs.  Once that income stops, you're going to have to make some difficult choices based on your financial situation.  Waste no time in taking the steps to address these issues head-on by:

  • Contact your creditors:  With such liabilities as a credit card, credit line, or outstanding medical bills, if the creditor in question doesn't have a program in place to suspend your account for a couple of months while you track down that new job, then they likely have a program to reduce the interest rate and modify your payments.  Believe it or not, they'll work with you, especially right now.  The last thing they want is for you to default on the loan.  The earlier you contact them, the better off you'll be - especially in the long run.
  • Micro-budget yourself:  Figure out what you can and cannot do without.  The longer your job search lasts, the easier it becomes to do without cable television, dry-cleaned clothes, making that weekly sojourn to your local restaurant, or stopping every day for that morning muffin and coffee. Scrutinize your bank statement. Consumers are often surprised how often they've accumulated automated payments or account debits - which they've forgotten about. Look closely: If you're still making regular payments to magazines, dating services, TV-based services, or even mutual funds, look at those you can stop.  You'll be surprised at what you can eliminate from your monthly expenses once you know what's actually being paid for.
  • Seek Alternative Income: Do this immediately. Access other income sources as soon as you can.  If you're eligible, apply for Unemployment Compensation; sometimes it can take weeks for this to kick in, so the sooner you apply, the sooner you can begin to collect an income.  If needed, find another source of income - you'll be surprised how many opportunities are out there for people who are willing to take on shifts outside of the 9 to 5 norm.

As you work through these necessary tasks, make time to jumpstart your job-hunt, as well. Unless you're forced to take the first real offer that comes your way, don't be afraid to make the most out of this situation by including your dream job in process. The worst that can happen is that you don't land that particular job.

But you just might do it.

Just as with the "Plan" phase of your job search, you'll create the best chance for success in the job-hunting phase if you "Pinpoint" exactly what you're looking for.

Pinpointing Success

By pinpointing your objectives, you have to understand just where you want to be. But you also need to pinpoint just how you intend to get there, and to be realistic about what you're up against. It's the last of those three that's often the toughest to see and understand. So let's take a closer look.

Understanding the Challenges: As we noted just moments ago, it's not too difficult these days to get a pretty good idea of the overall unemployment scene: The official unemployment rate was last this high in 1983, and it's going to get higher before it hits its apex and heads lower. But you also need to understand just what the hiring situation is in the specific industry you wish to work in - as well as the specific geographic market where you hope to work.

On an industry-wide level, The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Web Site ( is a good place to start.  By checking out their monthly Economic Statistics reports, you can get a clear picture of industry-specific performance in the U.S.

For example, in the Employment Situation Summary for May 2009, we can see that both the education/health services and leisure/hospitality subsets of the service-providing industry added jobs last month: 44,000 and 3,000 jobs, respectively.

Whereas, the goods-producing, manufacturing, and service- providing sectors were down 225,000, 156,000 and 120,000 jobs for the month, respectively.
By combining industry-wide knowledge with more specific resources available for your cities and states on Web sites provided by local newspapers (in my local area, that would be The Baltimore Sun or The Washington Post, for example), social media networks (like Craig's List or Facebook) and jobs sites (such as or, you'll gain a much better idea of the job market available to you right now.

Define Your Goal: This is the point most people start at when job hunting because they think it's the easiest to knock out.  Well, in part, they're right.  There's no better authority than you when it comes to knowing what you can do or want to do.

But there's a mistake most jobseekers make - a mistake you need to avoid at all costs: Don't sell yourself short, and don't "pigeon-hole" yourself by thinking that your skills will only allow you to do a very narrowly defined job. Granted, for certain specific trades - such as HVAC installation and service, plumbing, or auto repair - you may be looking for highly specialized work.

In Corporate America, however, people who've worked in the divisions or departments essential to business - such as marketing, sales, human resources, logistics, or operations - jobseekers often don't see those additional possibilities. If someone has spent the last 11 years working in HR for an accounting firm, they may not realize that they have the skills or experience needed to do a similar job within a school system, a hospital or health-care center, or a startup technology firm. And they could end up missing out on some good-paying and career-rejuvenating opportunities in the process.

That's when the marriage between knowing what you're up against and know what you want to do becomes critical.  Once you've identified which industries are the go-to segments for employment, you just have to look for the companies within that industry that offer positions in which you've had all of that experience.  Sometimes, though, you may need to persuade the decision-maker for the position in question that your experience in one industry lends itself to the other.

And finally, understanding of the challenges you face may also give you an entrée into the industry that houses your dream job.

Of course, you need to be somewhat realistic, even as you act with enthusiasm and aggressiveness. For example, if you always wanted to be a major league relief pitcher, but are now 34 years old with eight years of accounting experience to your credit, the chances are pretty good that the New York Yankees aren't going to be phoning you to offer a mound tryout. However, the Bronx Bombers - like any other business - do have an accounting division, and your experience may be a perfect fit for what they're looking for.

Remember that your sudden joblessness may give you the opportunity to get into an industry that you've always wanted to be in.  Now, though, you have the requisite experience within one of the departments common to every company, that makes you a much more attractive candidate for that position.

Now, you just have to be able to seize an opportunity, once you've identified it.  And that brings us to the third "P" - Pounce.

Pounce on That Possibility

Too many job seekers begin their search in an all-out desperation mode - thinking they have to find a job as soon as possible.  Even if that's true in your case, if you're not prepared to make the most out of every job-seeking situation you enter, you may end up blowing the best chance - at the best job - that you'll ever see.

So, take a page from the Boy Scouts: Be prepared - to pounce.  That is, prepare for the best possible scenario, as if you're going to hit the job-seeking jackpot.  For example, what happens if the first company you contact asks you to send your resume and references right away, so the chief executive and the head of HR can look them over this morning and then have you in that afternoon? If you aren't prepared, you can't pounce on the prospects that may come your way.

Well, if your answer to that request is "I can e-mail whatever you'd like right now.  What time this afternoon would you like to meet?" you're on your way.  But if the last time you looked at your resume was six years ago, during your last job search, or you last spoke to your best prospective reference three years ago (and don't even know where they're working today), chances are you'll still be job hunting long after someone else is happily seated (and working) behind the desk that should have been yours.

So even before making that first call or typing in that first word for an online search, make sure that you have the following information updated, available, and ready to be sent at the drop of a hat:

  1. Resume: More than just having it updated, make sure that you know it backwards and forewords.  Be able to explain gaps in your employment history, or why you've recently jumped from job to job.  The best plan: Have a general template that you can individualize or customize in order to pounce on a specific job opening.
  2. Cover Letter: In many cases, the cover letter is just as important as your resume.  It should be your Sports Center highlight reel, but it should also be concise. Like you have with your resume, prepare a cover letter template, so that you can customize information for different openings, catering your comments to specific requirements or requests.
  3. References: At a minimum, you should have the names and contact information (phone and e-mail) for three business and personal references.  For businesspeople, include their titles and company names.
  4. Samples of work: For positions in such "creative" fields as copywriting, graphic arts, architecture, or industrial design, to name a few, you'll be asked to submit samples of your work.  Make hardcopies and electronic files of whatever you can, so that you can submit them in multiple formats.  Never give away originals, thinking that they'll be returned - chances are, you'll never see them again.

In addition to having the documents and materials above ready to go with a moment's notice, you should also have the following information and materials readily available:

  1. Your schedule for the week:  If you're asked when you're free later in the week, you need to be able to answer that question immediately.  The worst thing you can do tell someone that you're meeting with at that moment, or that you're talking with on the phone, that you'll get back to them with that information.  You may not be able to connect later, for a variety of reasons.  Then when you do re-connect, you window of opportunity may have closed.
  2. Clothes for an interview: Some laugh at this suggestion as oh-so-obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times people will tell us that they were called in for an interview - only to realize that their best suit was still rumpled from their last interview, three weeks ago. You don't have to go out and purchase a new suit for every interview opportunity, but if you're asked to come in to talk that day, and you don't have time to wash, iron or otherwise clean appropriate clothing, you run the risk of making a bad impression - and losing the job.

Don't Give Up

It goes without saying that this is one of the toughest and most-challenging periods U.S. job seekers have faced. But it also goes without saying that you can't give up. That's why the fourth of our four insights - the "Four P's" - is perseverance. Hope for the best, but don't be discouraged if no job offer is immediately forthcoming. Prepare for the long haul by following the game plan we've identified, and use that as a survival kit that will get you through to the long run, where those who persevere usually win.

[Editor's Note: In future installments in this series, Money Morning will look at such jobless-recovery topics as career-management, managing your finances, planning for retirement, and promising sectors for employment.

In the meantime, don't forget your investments. But in a market as uncertain as the one investors face now, it helps to have a guide. And the ideal guide is The Money Map Report, the monthly investment newsletter that's a sister publication to Money Morning. In fact, a new offer from Money Morning is a two-way win for investors: Noted commentator Peter D. Schiff's new book - "The Little Book of Bull Moves in Bear Markets" - shows investors how to profit no matter which way the market moves, while our monthly newsletter, The Money Map Report, provides ongoing analysis of the global financial markets and some of the best profit plays you'll find anywhere - including such markets as Taiwan and China. To find out how to get both, check out our latest offer. ]

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