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Tooling Up: The Cold, Hard Truth About Finding a Job in 2009

Even when the job market is robust, a job-search strategy won't work if you're not using your time effectively and concentrating on methods that actually work. But the world has changed, seemingly overnight. One day, my client list contained many companies interviewing for open positions at all levels; a few weeks later, the same companies put those positions on hold or had moved into layoffs. The speed and intensity of this economic meltdown hit us all by surprise. It's so bad right now that this normally positive thinker is finally agreeing with the naysayers: Times are tough!

Still, there are jobs out there--jobs that someone is going to land. This month's column offers tips for ensuring that you are one of those who complete their job-search mission in 2009.

In this unforgiving job market, you can't flounder. This is the year to implement the perfect process for your job hunt.

The year of the perfect process

In this unforgiving job market, you can't flounder. This is the year to implement the perfect process for your job hunt.

Although the elements of your process will differ depending on your specific needs and the targeted job, there is some common ground. Here are a few items you should consider as you sit down to plan your '09 job-search strategy:

* You must plan on a truly significant effort. Postdocs or new grads often invest only 20 to 30 minutes a day in their job search. In 2009, that will get you a few "thank you" responses from human resources--and little else. If you aren't spending 2 hours a day on your search, you're unlikely to get any kind of traction at all.

* You need to search for jobs using all means possible--anything that is relevant to your situation: responding to journal ads, headhunters, or Internet job postings; attending job fairs; networking and informational interviewing. Gone are the days of using only one of these channels and succeeding. You can't count on 100 Internet job applications or on networking alone. You've got to have all the bases covered.

* This year, you will need to invest not only time but also money in your job search. Employers will be offering fewer out-of-town interview trips, so you may have to risk some of your capital to visit two or three companies over several days in an area.

* I always mention the importance of a plan B. In this job market, you also need plans C and D. Interested in a research job in the medical-products industry? Fine. But make sure you're also applying to positions in the consulting industry and any other segment in which work appropriate for you goes on. For example, perhaps you also meet the qualifications for an available bench position with a food-industry employer. Apply for it. But keep in mind that every type of employer requires a different version of your well-written CV.

Huge loads of perseverance

Let's say you've got a great plan and you are attacking all sectors. What you're going to get back from that huge outlay of time and effort may not look like it was worth the investment. This is the point at which the second key element of a 2009 job search comes into play: perseverance.

You'll put in three times as much effort this year than you did, or would have, last year to generate the same number of job leads. And when they show up at your door, you don't just have to recognize them; you must also have the ability to recover when they don't pan out. I can't tell you how to bounce back; you'll need to experience that yourself. Be assured that rejection will hurt--but it will make you a better job seeker, as long as you take the appropriate lesson from every bump.

Perhaps you've just had an embarrassing phone conversation with a networking contact, or your third hard-earned interview went by without so much as a follow-up call from the employer. Your natural instinct may be to pull back and start looking at yet another postdoc or to limit yourself to Internet job applications. Don't allow those instincts to rule! Each negative experience holds a lesson. How could you have made that phone contact go more smoothly? What can you learn about yourself from interviews that haven't resulted in offers? (In a recession like this one--indeed, even in good times--many of us have a tendency to not look too closely at bad news. But there are good lessons inside those negative experiences.)

I've always considered perseverance to be one of my strongest attributes, but 2009 has really tested me--and it's only February. I've had to resort to extraordinary measures when I am making networking calls or trying to sell my executive-search services to employers. In fact, I sometimes push to the point at which I risk being considered a pest by others along the way. It's a fine line. In times like these, you have to push hard, but you also have to know when to stop. Here are some of my recommendations about how aggressive to get, and when to call it quits:

* While networking, don't stop when one or two calls are not returned. Continue calling without leaving voicemail messages until you reach the person you want to talk to at his or her desk. If messages must be left (or if you are using e-mail), remember that three attempts should be your limit. Anyone who has had three messages from you and hasn't replied is not going to be a willing resource.

* Push past online job applications when company HR departments don't respond. Turn up every contact you can possibly make at the company to identify the hiring manager and state your case directly to that person.

* You can't rely on memory to remind you to make follow-up calls. Make a habit of entering all follow-up timelines into a calendar program, whether it resides on your computer, on the Internet (Google Desktop,, or on paper. I use Apple's iCal program on my desktop, which communicates with my iPhone for mobile reminders no matter where I am.

* The extent of contacts you'll need to make in 2009 means that you'll want to develop a contact database as well, whether it's a simple Excel spreadsheet or something akin to a relational database. Software programs like ACT! (PC) or Daylite (Mac) combine the calendar program suggested above with a great way to manage your relationships and networking contacts. You'll appreciate programs like these when you find yourself with much more data to manage than you've ever had before.

A positive attitude

Your mental outlook--the most critical element in the 2009 job search--will either keep you open for new opportunities or close your mind and seal your fate. It's really easy to be negative about things this year. In fact, some experts believe that the economic downturn would be much less severe if there wasn't such a negative view promulgated by the media. I believe that one's attitude does affect the physical world around them. At least, that's the case for the job seeker.

So, knowing it's a lousy job market out there, what facts can you keep in mind that can help you have positive expectations for your job search? First of all, remember that all recessions have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So do job searches. Very few qualified people engage in a job search of the type described in this column without achieving their goals, or some satisfactory equivalent of those goals.

Your new job is out there, even in 2009. Grumble about the economy all you want, but when it comes to the job search, start digging and don't stop until you've got what you were looking for!

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