Yes, you (probably) can change jobs now

January 13, 2012, 4:40 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: A friend sent me your recent column about eight signs it’s time to quit, and all eight of them apply to me. I would like nothing better than to leave the company where I work now. My performance reviews have been great, but this is a family-owned business, and I’ve come to realize over the past couple of years that nobody gets promoted (or gets a raise) unless they have the same last name as the CEO.

So it’s clearly time to move on, and I’ve rewritten my resume to reflect the terrific track record I’ve built up as a brand manager since I graduated from college 12 years ago. But is there any point in going out looking? We keep hearing that 15 million Americans are unemployed, the job market is terrible, nobody’s hiring, etc., etc. Should I start job hunting anyway, or just try to make the best of things here until the economy improves? — Hitting a Brick Wall

Dear HBW: “The constant barrage of lackluster employment news can make finding a new job seem like an impossible goal,” says John Challenger, CEO of outplacement giant Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “It is not.”

That’s especially true in your case, for at least two reasons. First, you already have a job. It’s no secret that employers (loath as they may be to admit it) often give preference to the already employed. “Unfortunately, there is a stigma attached to being out of work,” says Geoff Hoffmann, chief operating officer of global recruiters DHR International. “There are ways to mitigate it but, yes, a gap in a resume does create apprehension.” Since you are working now, the 15 million unemployed are not your main competition.

Which brings us to a second advantage you may not realize you have: your college degree. The overall U.S. unemployment rate, while lower than it’s been for three years, is still dauntingly high at 8.5%. But that figure doesn’t apply to every segment of the workforce. For people with a high school diploma but no college degree, for instance, the rate is 8.8%. By contrast, for folks like you with a bachelor’s degree or higher, joblessness is at 4.3%, or less than half the aggregate rate.

(To put that 4.3% in perspective, it wasn’t long ago that economists considered 6% to equal “full employment” — meaning that unemployment is at the lowest point it can go, given seasonal and structural variations in workforce participation — and, obviously, 4.3% is well below that.)

“Headlines and sound bites mask enormous discrepancies in unemployment among different groups,” notes Robert Hellmann, an executive coach who teaches career management at New York University. “For those with bachelor’s degrees and some years of solid work experience, the job market is nowhere near as hopeless as people think, so do look around.” The key, he adds, is to focus your search on industries that are thriving.

DHR’s Hoffmann agrees: “Financial services, real estate, and construction are still weak. But from where we sit, it looks like almost everyone else is gearing up for growth. At the senior management level, we’re seeing a lot of hiring that is expansionary, not just replacement hiring.” You can get a new job now, Hoffmann adds, if you “understand which sectors are hot, and where the appetite for talent is.”

Even in struggling industries, pockets of opportunity exist. Consider: Financial job board reported last week that Wall Street firms have posted 54% more sales-and-marketing openings than last year at this time.

Or look at retailing. A new study by workforce-management software maker Kronos shows monthly hires bouncing back from their recessionary lows, and suggests that the retail industry could make a “significant recovery” in 2012.

Some of the job growth is behind the scenes. The New York City design department of Wisconsin-based Kohl’s Department Stores, for instance, manages 13 designer brands and has just announced its third expansion since 2007. The office started with 30 employees and now has 140. “I’ve got clients who have moved into retailing from other businesses like publishing,” says Hellmann.

“It’s still a buyer’s market, but the opportunities are there if you look for them,” he adds. So by all means, start looking.

Talkback: Have you changed jobs recently? If you’re a hiring manager, are you currently aiming to fill more openings than six months or a year ago? Leave a comment below.