My inbox is filled with e-mails like this:
"I've been at the same job for the past eight years and just got laid off. Besides 'update your resume,' what job hunting tips can you suggest for someone who's over 50 and has been out of the job hunting game for almost a decade?"
"I left corporate America four years ago to stay home while my kids were small. But now my husband and I need more money, so I'm trying to find a part-time or full-time job. I've sent out 40 resumes but haven't gotten any interviews. I'm worried that my skills might sound a bit out of date. Can you help?"
No matter what your back story, trying to find a job in a down economy probably seems more daunting than performing your own root canal -- especially if you've been off the market for several years (or decades). But it's by no means impossible. Herewith, my top recommendations:
Get Off Your Rear -- Now
If you've been laid off, it's natural to want to take a couple weeks to sleep in, mope around in your robe, throw darts at your CEO's headshot and regroup. But don't linger in lethargy for too long.
"Any job seeker needs to be looking forward and needs to have a strategy," said Sherri Edwards, career coach and owner of Resource Maximizer, a Seattle-based career consulting firm.
Waiting till your unemployment checks run out (or your bank account dries up) to plot your next move isn't a valid strategy. Instead, give your job hunt a start date, preferably within the next two weeks. In the meantime, make a list of companies and roles you're interested in, professional contacts you'll reach out to and any other steps you plan to take.
Spend the time between now and your job hunt "start date" watching "Oprah" and "Maury" if you must, but take at least an hour a day to chip away at your list so you don't completely fade into career oblivion.
In this economy, Edwards explains, procrastination is not an option. Besides, online research, resume tweaks and networking via e-mail can all be done in your robe, so you've got no excuse.
Get Your Story Straight
Yes, you need to start shaking hands ASAP. But before you can interview, you need to figure out how you'll explain those twists, turns and potholes in your resume -- and to the hiring managers interviewing you -- preferably in two minutes or less.
Adding the phrase "the company closed" or "contract position" alongside a job listed on your resume is obviously a quick fix, Edwards said. But, she advises, the words "laid off" should never appear on your CV. Instead, quickly explain in the interview that you were let go. Unless the hiring manager hasn't read the news all year, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
But what if you have a five-year employment gap? Does that render you unhirable?
Not if you have a good explanation for what you've been up to and "how it will be of value to a current employer," Edwards said.
For example, if you've been off building schools in Third World villages since 2007 or running your own business since 2002, you probably have all sorts of bootstrapping, communication and decision-making skills an employer will find attractive.
Likewise, if you've been playing full-time caregiver for the past several years, you can still impress potential employers with your multitasking and administrative skills, not to mention your reliability and patience. In addition, taking courses, volunteering or consulting in your chosen field will go a long way toward freshening up your resume.
As for those who've been sitting in mom's basement playing video games since getting their bachelor's degrees a year ago, I'm with your mom: It's time to get off your duff and take whatever work you can get that won't land you in jail.
Look Beyond Monster.com
When it comes to sniffing out the jobs, if you're just relying on Monster, CareerBuilder or Craigslist, you're not looking hard enough.
Unless you have some unusual, highly coveted skills, "Throwing your resume out there in the wind to be competing with 9 million people [is] just a waste of breath," Edwards said. While you might find the occasional gem on such sites, you're far more likely to land a great lead through your professional connections.
Don't have any fresh connections in your field? Then it's high time you got some. Talk to friends and former co-workers to see if they know anyone employed at the companies you'd most like to work for -- or if they have suggestions for companies that are hiring. Line up informational interviews with any healthy companies you can, even if they're not currently hiring. Those meetings have a way of paying off a few weeks or months down the line when an opening arises.
Tap the local chapter of your professional association of choice, too. Not only do these organizations host free or low-cost training programs and meet-and-greets, many of them provide their members with job listings as well as e-mail discussion lists and newsletters filled with insider information you can't get anywhere else.
And finally, if you don't yet have a LinkedIn profile, it's time to make one. Many employers are using this free professional networking site to list jobs and find candidates. It may not be as fun as Facebook or as sexy as Singlesnet.com, but creating a professional profile could turn out to be one of the best hours you've ever spent.
Make Sure You Don't Sound Old
Despite the fact that such discrimination is illegal, some employers don't want to hire the AARP sect. Either they think everyone over 50 can't learn new tricks, or they're worried that all older candidates are high-level execs looking for a fat cat's salary.
But other than networking your brains out and crossing your fingers, what can you do if you're an older job seeker?
Make sure your technical skills are up to date. If you don't know how use the latest accounting or customer relationship management tools employed in your field, it's time to learn. Your local community college comes in handy here. Many even often online courses for those of you loathe to set foot on a college campus.
Then there's the matter of your resume. Some experts advise older workers to leave the dates off the positions they've held. But Edwards doesn't advise it. Instead, she said, list only the past 10 to 15 years of your work experience, provided it's all relevant to the job you're applying for. If you want to keep your age to yourself, omit the dates from that college degree you earned 30 years ago.
But your resume makeover shouldn't stop there, said Steven Greenberg, CEO of Jobs4.0, a Web site that includes original job listings with companies seeking "experienced workers."
He advises writing a paragraph-long summary of your experience at the top of the first page, followed by a detailed list of your selected skills and achievements (statistics on increases in revenue and efficiency you were responsible for work well here). Then quickly list the positions you held and the dates you held them -- no descriptions needed.
"You should be viewed as this fantastic accumulation of experience and knowledge," said Greenberg, whose two-year-old site is free for jobseekers and includes listings from such corporate giants as Deloitte and GE. "It's not as relevant where and when you got the skill. You are the sum of all your skills."
Of course, none of this is license to go on and on about yourself for a dozen pages. No one wants to receive a resume that's more than two or three pages, tops.
Let the Government Work for You
No, really. While it's hardly the $700 billion assist Wall Street received from the feds, the One-Stop Career Centers the U.S. Department of Labor sponsors throughout the country offer free career counseling, job listings, computer and Internet access, and workshops on everything from resume makeovers to computer skills.
To find a One-Stop Career Center near you, visit ServiceLocator.org.
Of course, the government's helpfulness only goes so far. No matter what your situation -- pink slipped, brand new to the job market or returning to work for the first time since the Clinton administration -- it's ultimately up to you to make your own bailout plan.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.