Finding a job in tough economic times

OK. To call these tough economic times is to state the obvious. And it understates the reality of what is actually going on. Recent surveys by the Society for Human Resource Management and Watson Wyatt, a large benefits and human resources consulting firm, found that companies are planning additional layoffs next year. And that’s on top of the millions that are already looking for work. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, there are now 3.3 unemployed people for every job opening. (Statistics from the Wall Street Journal by subscription only, “Jobs, Benefits: Grim Outlook” December 18, 2008.)

Those are numbers. What made this personal for me last week were several e-mails I received from former students, now looking for their first job following graduation in December or looking for new jobs after being laid off. And then I read a story — well, a nonstory, really — in The Plain Dealer yesterday about a recent PR grad from the University of Texas who has been trying unsuccessfully for months to land a PR job in Chicago. I wish the young woman well and every success. But what made this a story is anyone’s guess. At the least, the Associated Press writer could have offered a tip  or two for finding a job in tough economic times. (This story, “Texan keeps positive in tough Chicago job market,” was so thin it apparently fell between the pixals on the PD’s website and vanished into cyberspace.)

Here’s a sample of the story, focusing on Kimberly Bratton, who graduated from the University of Texas this summer and headed to Chicago, without a job but with the hope of landing a spot in PR and advertising:

“So far it has meant taking office temp jobs and lining up baby-sitting gigs while she networks, sends applications and schedules the occasional interview.”

I’m sure Kimberly isn’t alone. But it’s too bad that the writer, Martha Irvine, didn’t provide some advice. So since I’ve been through a few — too many, really — recessions during the past 40 years, I’ll offer a few modest suggestions. Here goes:

  • Make sure your resume is current and free of errors. Highlight your strengths, skills and accomplishments. Particularly if you are looking for that first full-time job, remember that you are now most likely competing with people who have several years of experience. You have to sell yourself. And don’t neglect the experience you do have, gained through internships or volunteer work. It all counts.
  • And — that’s why I believe a cover letter is much more important in the early stages of a career (and subsequent job search) than a resume. Make your cover letter specific — let the employer know what you can contribute and how you can make his/her job easier — and let him/her know at the end of the letter that you are going to follow-up with a phone call. That says you’re serious. And engaged in a job search. Here’s a good source for tips on writing cover letters — and for in-person and phone interviews.
  • Let everyone and anyone know you are looking for a job. Networking is tough in ideal conditions. But having someone tell you about a job opening — or better yet, recommending you for a job — is still the best bet. I know the band has passed me by on a lot of things, but I’ll bet more people get jobs through personal contacts than online job lists and related services. And most people in public relations are willing to spend a few minutes — on the phone or in person — talking to you about job opportunities or offering advice in general. PRSA and other organizations that have lunches, meetings, etc. help. But I’m still a big believer that you have to do it the old fashioned way: pick up the phone and call.
  • Look for jobs in areas that tend to be more immune to economic downturns: colleges and universities, health care, government and community nonprofits. Also, for those with public relations backgrounds and skills, consider positions in fundraising and development. You have the necessary skills. You need to make the case that the skills — communications, planning and evaluation — are transferable. They are.
  • Also, employers these days — in all areas — want to hire people who can take on responsibility, work well with limited supervision, are critical thinkers, recognize the value of planning and evaluation,  and who can contribute to the overall success of an organization by working as part of a team. Oh, yeah. In public relations they would like it if you could write well, have some background for strategic planning, media relations, social and online media. Highlight those skills when talking to potential employers.  Here’s a quiz for those of you PRKent grads, recent or otherwise. Know many who have left Kent State with degrees in public relations who don’t have a majority of those skills?
  • And I’m not a strong advocate for unpaid internships — under any condition. But I recognize that might be a necessity as part of a degree requirement or just as an opportunity to enhance your background. Saying all that, given the dearth of full-time jobs you might have to consider another internship, paid or unpaid. But my first question would be: What’s the chance this could lead to a full-time paid position?

And one last thing. Don’t get discouraged or give up hope. And I know that is easier advice to give than to receive. But I really have been through this a lot in 40 years. The economy will improve. Jobs will become available. And for those of you with skills, talents and enthusiasm, things will work out. Trust me.

That’s what I try to tell the students from Kent who contact me. I would have told Kimberly Bratton the same thing if given the chance in the PD story yesterday.

And if you’ve stuck with me this far, here’s an article in the Akron Beacon Journal this morning, “Some advice on job hunting in a dreary economy.”

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2 responses to “Finding a job in tough economic times

  1. Rob,
    Since the semester is over I’m going to skip your quiz. Thanks for the compassionate counsel and ‘e-mentoring’. The cover letter is often overlooked and something I had not previously considered very important. I’ll be sure to remember that. I wish you and your family a wonderful holiday season!

  2. Austin,

    Thanks. Hope you enjoy the holidays as well. It’s a very special time of the year. And yeah. Don’t neglect the cover letter. It makes a difference.

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