Q: What is the usual length of time a person can expect to be unemployed?
-- K.W., Melbourne, Fla.
A: You might want to fix yourself a stiff drink -- or a relaxing cup of herbal tea -- because you probably won't like the answer. It's not looking good out there -- and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better.
Officially, the average period a person is unemployed right now is 13.1 weeks, up from 12.1 weeks a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the figures are for September and are the most recent available). But the economic slowdown, exacerbated by the fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks on America, is putting more and more employers in the firing mood.
Clearly, your peers are also worried about the situation: Only 25% of workers say that now is a good time to find a quality job, compared with 80% just a year ago, reports a recent survey of nearly 1,000 adults conducted jointly by Rutgers University and the University of Connecticut. To make matters worse, the few employers that are actually hiring are taking their own sweet time (see BW Online, 6/19/01, "A Longer Wait for That Final Offer").
"TOUGH GOING." Still, averages are merely averages, and it's possible you could find a new job in a day, while it might take others months. Nevertheless, the hiring outlook for mid- to upper-level managers is particularly bleak. In fact, the market for these high-wage earners may not bounce back until as late as fall 2002, according to Hunt-Scanlon, a recruiting industry researcher, which recently polled 50 chief executives at leading headhunting firms.
Economists had generally been predicting improvement in the labor market some time in the first half of next year, so "this was a big surprise to us," says Scott Scanlon, chairman and CEO of the Stamford (Conn.)-based company. "It's tough going right now."
This doesn't mean that your only hope is to don a hair net and flip burgers. But you must be prepared financially for many weeks, if not many months, of pounding the pavement. "You want to be able to make a good decision relative to your career change," says Robert Veasey, a certified financial planner at Sowa Financial Group in East Providence, R.I. "A lot of times, when people get laid off, they take the first thing they can get because they don't have a cushion." Of course, if you're laid off, the first thing you should do is negotiate for the best severance package if at all possible (see BW, 10/22/01, "Taking the Edge Off Getting the Ax").
RAINY-DAY FUND. While you're still working, Veasey says, you should have at least six months' worth of living expenses socked away for emergencies. A year's worth is even better, naturally. Whether you've got a rainy-day fund or not, once you're unemployed you will have to downscale your life, big time. Two luxuries that people are often loath to scale back on are restaurants and gifts, says Veasey, who is also president of the Rhode Island Financial Planning Assn. "I can't overestimate the numbers that will come out if you cut back on these," he adds.
Of course, you won't need as much cash in the bank if you can get a new job quickly. Though that's easier said than done, you can do a few things to minimize the time spent at home waiting for the phone to ring. In this tight labor market, networking is more important than ever because with fewer positions to go around, companies are less likely to hire an unknown, no matter how good you look on paper.
Joining a professional association is a way to schmooze with folks in your line of work in a casual environment, says Jo-Anne Smith, an account executive at global outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin in Woodland Hills, Calif. "Professional associations exist for just about every job function out there," says Smith. "If there isn't one, start one."
ADD NEW SKILLS. Smith knows of four chief operating officers in the Los Angeles area who found themselves out of a job earlier this year. They decided to start an association for COOs in the region, meeting regularly with other COOs to talk about best practices, swap resumes, and lend moral support. Within just a few months, all four had found jobs making more money than they did before, she says.
Brushing up on your skills, or developing new ones, is another way of making yourself stand out, thus increasing your marketability, Smith says. Don't just focus on hard skills -- things such as computer expertise or accounting knowledge -- but also on soft skills such as leadership or communication. Although it may mean swallowing your pride, Smith suggests going back to your former employer to ask old bosses or underlings about areas you could use some work on.
"We need to step back [to assess skills]," she says. When they lay workers off, some companies retain outplacement firms such as Drake Beam Morin, which offers training courses. Otherwise, you may have to find one on your own. Private executive coaches, community colleges or universities, and government-employee development programs may all offer the help you need.
AVOID BUSY WORK. You could also land that next gig faster if you're willing to be a contract worker, says Shel Hart, vice-president for emerging practices at Orlando-based Spherion, another outplacement firm. Although many companies are reducing headcount, they still need to get work done. That's where contract employment come in. Foregoing health care and the other bennies that come with being a permanent employee may not be an option for you. But if you can make do without them, you may find a rewarding job in your field as a temporary worker.
The key, Hart says, is to determine not only what you're good at but also who needs your skills. You'll be more attractive if you can quantify your past impact on the bottom line, he says. "You need to determine your area of competence, back it up with detail, and find your target audience," Hart says. "You may have the bait on the hook, but what are you fishing for?"
You can do many other things also to improve your chances of getting the next job quickly (see BW Online, 6/19/01, "Getting to the Finish Line Faster"). Whatever you do, however, don't get bogged down with job-searching busy work that may keep you from watching daytime talk shows but won't get you any closer to an offer.
PAIN MANAGEMENT. At least 50% of your time should be spent talking to people who might actually be able to hire you, says Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services, a résumé and career-guidance company in Cincinnati. An additional 20% would be well spent networking with associations, she suggests, while no more than 15% should be focused on Internet searches, and no more than 15% talking to recruiters.
"If you are spending 60% of your time on the Internet and just sending off résumés cold, that's not cutting it," Kursmark says. "You have to balance things that are easier with things that are harder." You have to be a masochist to truly enjoy job searching. But in this economy, you'll likely experience some pain before you make any gain.
Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at email@example.com, or write to Ask Careers, Business Week Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity. By Eric Wahlgren in New York