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Advice for the Long-Term Unemployed

By Marty Nemko

I recently asked an audience of 100 job seekers, “How many of you have been unemployed for more than a year?” Despite the U.S.unemployment rate being near all-time lows, surprisingly, 25 percent raised their hand.

Not surprisingly, the long-term unemployed get despondent. Here are some ropes that can pull you out of the muck, and perhaps land you a job.

Let’s troubleshoot your job search:

1. How many hours a week do you spend looking for a job?

You should spend 20 to 30 hours a week, 10 to 15 if you’re working full-time. Less than that and you’ll go too long between interviews. That will make you despondent or desperate sounding. Or you’ll give up and settle for a survival job such as clerk at Home Depot.

2. How wisely do you spend your job search time?

Good uses of time: answering ads you’re truly qualified for, asking people in your personal and professional network for leads, cold-contacting hiring managers and desirable employers.

Bad uses of time: undue resume primping, extensive company research just for a cold-contact letter, answering job ads you are not fully qualified for.

3. Are you targeting too narrow a niche? Perhaps too few jobs are open in that niche.

4. Have you been targeting too high-level a job? Perhaps you need to ratchet down a notch or two.

5. If you have had more than a few interviews, none of which yielded a job offer, you interview poorly and/or your references aren’t singing your praises.

To check out your interview skills, do a mock interview with a career counselor, and have it videotaped and critiqued. Often, that service is available free through your state’s unemployment department.

To see if your references have been sabotaging you, have a friend call them and ask for a reference. Even if an employer’s policy precludes giving more than the employee’s dates of employment, the tone of voice can speak volumes.

If your scout finds that your references are not effusive, consider talking with your reference. Say something like, “In this tight job market, I need to be able to know that my references will give me a strong endorsement. Do you feel you’re in a position to do that?” If he says yes, the person will probably be more positive the next time he’s called. If he says no, ask, “I’m eager to become a better employee in the future. Can you give me some brutally honest feedback?” That information may indeed help you be a better employee, and probably confirm that you need to find a better reference.

Also, if even people you consider your allies won’t give you a good reference, then it’s time for some self-evaluation.

1. Do you really have sufficient skills? Do you need to get more training or switch to a job on which you would do a better job?

2. Do you have personal problems that keep you from being a good employee? For example, are you preoccupied with family problems? A physical or mental health issue? A drug or alcohol problem? Do you need to better address those?

3. Do you need an attitude adjustment: Are you cynical? A complainer? An undue pessimist? Are you working hard enough?

Usually, the best way to determine how good an employee you are is a 360-degree evaluation. Obtain feedback from your past bosses, co-workers, supervisees, vendors, and customers. For example, you might ask, verbally or in writing, “As part of my professional development, I periodically like to get some feedback about my work. Honestly, would you rate me: excellent, good, fair, or poor? And tell me what you like and don’t like about my work.” That may produce painful results, but will help you become a better employee, so perhaps you won’t have to look for a job again for a long time.

Many talented people have an unimpressive employment history. For example, they may not have a degree or a degree in a not well-respected major such as sociology, education, or gender studies. They may have taken years off to raise children. Or they may have spent the last three winters as a ski bum and the summers lying on their parent’s couch. Even if your work history wouldn’t impress a Taco Bell manager, you can instantly catapult yourself from schlepper to CEO by becoming self-employed. Of course, most startups fail, but you can greatly increase your odds--see the entrepreneurship articles on

Get support in your job search. If your job search is taking more than a few weeks, the rejection, the being ignored, the lack of structure in your life, not to mention the lack of income can take a toll. Often, it helps to be in a group of other job seekers. In many locales, free support groups are available through your state’s unemployment department or a local church. You might also want to consider two fee-based support groups: Barbara Sher’s Success Teams. ( and the Five O’ Clock Club (

Adopt these strategies and you’ll almost assuredly land a job. But I can tell you from experience, the long-term unemployed tend to nod in agreement and then not follow through. Don’t you be one of those.

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