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How the long-term unemployed can bounce back

Jul 11, 2014

Dear Annie:  I hope you and your readers can offer some fresh perspective on this, because I’m all out of ideas. The problem is that my wife, who was doing well in her field until she lost her last job almost a year ago, is getting really down about her chances of finding another job. We’re okay financially, at least for now, but I’m worried about her state of mind. She seems to have no energy or enthusiasm for anything, and now she’s talking about taking the next couple of months “off” from the job hunt, since it has gotten her nowhere so far, even though she’s been doing everything right (networking, informational interviews with people in her field, etc.). Can you suggest any way she can avoid being totally discouraged and giving up? — Michigan Man

Dear M.M.: I wish I knew of a quick fix for the dilemma of the 3.1 million people in the U.S. who, like your wife, have been looking for work for six months or longer. “Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet,” says Chip Conlin, a longtime coach with national career network Five O’Clock Club who has worked with hundreds of managers displaced by layoffs. “It just requires doing the same things any job hunter has to do, only more of it.”

That can be tough, because it calls for huge amounts of patience and perseverance, especially lately. “Companies are used to operating with very lean staffs now so, even though the economy is picking up, many employers are being cautious about hiring,” Conlin notes. “HR people call it ‘chasing the purple squirrel’—trying to find the candidate with the perfect combination of qualifications, who probably doesn’t exist.”

So your wife’s discouragement is not surprising or unusual. Tom Gimbel, CEO and president of Chicago recruiting and staffing firm LaSalle Network, points to a new Gallup study showing that people who have been unemployed for a year or longer suffer a rate of clinical depression almost twice that of people out of work for five weeks or less. One symptom of depression is having “no energy or enthusiasm for anything,” as you put it. “The trouble is that lack of energy comes across in job interviews,” Gimbel says—making it even harder to get hired.

Still, believe it or not, there are two good reasons not to give up. First, according to the latest employment figures, the number of long-term unemployed Americans has dropped by 293,000, and there are 34% fewer “discouraged workers”—those who have given up looking—than there were last year at this time. So, despite the prevalence of purple squirrel syndrome, more long-term job hunters clearly are finding new jobs.

Conlin sometimes recommends that burned out job hunters take a break from the search for a month or so, but summer is not the time to do it. Why not? “We’ve found that September, right after Labor Day, is the second-biggest hiring spike in the year,” he says. (The biggest jump comes in January.) “So meeting with lots of people in July and August puts job hunters in a strong position.” Stepping up a job search right now also means “less competition, since so many people take time off from the job hunt in the summer,” he adds.

A possible compromise between job hunting full-time and stopping altogether: Volunteer work, which is “work, but in a different atmosphere” where people can take some of the pressure off themselves, Conlin says, and get immersed in a project they care about. “You don’t even have to put the word ‘volunteer’ on your resume,” he notes. “Work is work, especially if it relates to your field. And being out there, visible, and involved often leads to that next paying job.”

Conlin has also seen people who are fed up with fruitless job hunts sign on for contract work, either by way of networking contacts or through agencies that match workers with employers who need temporary help. “Even companies reluctant to add full-time positions are taking people on for three-month or six-month projects,” he notes. “Sometimes those can lead to full-time work, too”—or, at the very least, add valuable recent work experience to a resume.

A third way to fight the long-term unemployment blues is to focus attention on “other parts of life,” Tom Gimbel says. Without abandoning the search for work, he says, “concentrating more on things that make you happy can counteract discouragement. Some people’s gardens have never looked better. It’s essential to be doing something” that has a tangible result—and that includes exercise, he adds. “Even if it’s only a 30-minute walk every day, physical exercise energizes you, and you need that energy to keep up a long-term job hunt.”

Bear in mind that the job search is “a game of numbers,” Conlin observes. “It’s perfectly normal to get in touch with 60 people and have only five meetings come out of it—but that’s five more meetings than you’d have had otherwise, and it increases the probability of finding the person who has a job for you.” It only takes one.

Talkback: Have you ever looked for a job for six months or longer? How did you keep from getting discouraged? Leave a comment below.

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