Finding a job in your own backyard

November 17, 2011, 3:26 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: For the past several years, I’ve been commuting almost two hours each way, from my home in a small-ish town to my office in a major city. When I took this job, I didn’t realize it would take so long to get to work — and it wouldn’t, if the traffic weren’t so horrendous. I like my job, but the hours I spend on the road every day are taking a toll (headaches, backache, insomnia). Moving closer to the city isn’t an option, since I bought my house at the peak of the real estate boom and now owe more on it than it’s worth in this market.

I’d like to start looking for a job near where I live, but two problems: First, this might sound crazy, but I really don’t know anyone in the area, since I spend nearly all my waking hours in the car or at the office (or the gym) in the city. And second, there are no big employers nearby, so no obvious places to start searching. Any suggestions? — Road Weary

Dear R.W.: You don’t say where you live, but for your sake, I hope it isn’t in L.A. A study released earlier this week by researchers at Texas A&M University says that six of the seven most congested roads in the U.S. are in or around Los Angeles.

The absolute worst, the report notes, is “a 3-mile stretch of northbound Highway 110 near Dodger Stadium,” where commuters spend an annual total of over 1.4 million hours stuck in traffic, burning up 2.1 million gallons of gas.

Of course, most commutes aren’t that bad. The average commuter logs about 25 minutes each way, according to the Census Bureau’s latest figures. A lucky 13% travel less than ten minutes in each direction. Only 2% commute for 90 minutes or longer.

Since you belong to that tiny minority, it isn’t surprising that you’re suffering from signs of stress. A Gallup study last year found that the longer a person’s daily trek to work, the more likely it is that the commuter will experience health problems, including painful neck or back trouble. The study also found that the highest incidence of psychological stress, notably chronic worry (40%), occurred among people whose commute takes 90 minutes or longer.

So how do you look for a job in your own backyard? As with any other job search, the most effective approach is through in-person networking. In your case, since you don’t know any locals (yet), staffers at ExecuNet, a nationwide career network for senior managers, recommend starting with these five steps:

1. Search job boards by zip code. Many job sites, including, (for IT jobs), and (for people over 50, whether “retired” or not), allow you to enter your target zip code and get a list of openings in the area. Even if nothing pops up right away that seems like a fit, this will give you a general idea of who’s hiring near you.

2. Read regional business journals and community newspapers, with an eye toward identifying companies that seem to be growing (read: hiring). Staying on top of local news can often help you spot opportunities that aren’t advertised anywhere.

3. Join the nearest Chamber of Commerce. These groups have a wealth of information about local businesses, often including contact information for key executives. Pinpoint a few that might interest you and develop a two-minute “elevator pitch” about what you could offer.

Then introduce yourself. “Target companies with needs that you can fill,” says Mark Anderson, ExecuNet’s president. “Analyze how your skills and experience could solve a specific problem or challenge they’re facing.”

4. Check out the directories in local office buildings. Those lists in the lobby showing suite numbers for different companies are a Who’s Who of small-to-medium-sized employers and startups. Study each of their websites. Set up Google alerts to catch updates on their activities that might clue you in to actual or potential job openings.

5. Get to know headhunters in your field, if you don’t already. “Recruiters often specialize in a particular function or a specific industry,” Anderson points out. “They tend to look for candidates over wide geographical areas, and they may be trying to fill openings near you for big client companies that are based elsewhere.”

A sixth suggestion: If at all possible — maybe on the weekends — do try to get involved in a nearby community organization. Churches (or synagogues, or mosques), the local Red Cross, the YMCA or YWCA, the PTA, and many other kinds of groups often have lots going on, even in very small towns. They’re great places to start getting to know your neighbors, including those who might know of job openings.

Granted, all this research and reaching out on your part will take time and patience (although it might also be kind of fun). While you’re looking, why not try negotiating with your current employer to let you telecommute for at least a day or two each week?

“We’re seeing more and more managers doing this,” Anderson says. “The technology available now makes it practical, and companies see real benefits to productivity when people have less stress and less wasted time stuck in traffic.”

Who knows? If you could rearrange your current schedule to let you work from home some of the time, your commute — on the days when you still have to do it — might be a little easier to take.

Talkback: Do you have a long commute to and from work? If you’ve found a job in a small town, how did you do it? Leave a comment below.