The U.S. unemployment rate rose from 5 percent in April to 5.5 percent in May, its highest level since October 2004, just as a new crop of college grads faces the most challenging job market in years. The stiff competition means everyone looking for work must step up their game in the job search.
It's no longer just who you know. In today's economy you must focus deliberately on who knows you. Job seekers should aggressively market themselves to decision-makers and the people who influence those decision-makers. You must also do an honest assessment of your efforts to determine if you're doing everything you possibly can to secure an offer.
Ask yourself these 7 questions:
Am I looking in the right places?: If your industry is in turmoil right now, don't sit around waiting for things to improve. Look to transfer your skills to another industry. If you performed marketing duties in the hard-hit construction industry, try seeking a marketing-related position in health care administration, which has added jobs. If your small employer is cutting back the hours of its sales staff, look at its competitors that could benefit from your sales success. If your airline is laying off its flight attendants, shift your focus to an opportunity in tourism PR or hotel concierge services. The idea is to think of at least three to five ways to apply what you know to a totally new line of work.
Am I top of mind?: Make a list of all of the people who know that you're looking for work. Then, make a list of the people who should know that you're looking. That second list should be your primary focus because it will likely include decision-makers at the employers you're targeting. Take the necessary steps to make your name known to them. You can accomplish this through internal referrals, alumni contacts, professional associations, industry blogs, online social networks, local career fairs and open houses, peers within the same field, and even old-fashioned cold calling.
Am I memorable?: Standing out from the pack -- in a positive way -- will improve your chances for being considered. Showing up dressed like a clown or mailing inappropriate gimmicks to catch the attention of an employer will likely backfire. Instead, focus your efforts in a positive way. One college student created a magazine about herself that caught the attention of a recruiter. That would work for a professional at any age -- it isn't limited to the entry level. An event planner could put together a packet with photographs of her best functions. A sales professional can bind copies of reference letters from impressive clients who can vouch for his or her expertise and service. Don't wait to be asked for such collateral -- be proactive about producing something that's neat and brings your passion, your personality and your professional skills to life.
Am I casting a wide net?: Even though one or two job postings might scream your name, do not rely on too few positions. You need many, many sticks in the fire because you have no way of knowing which will catch. Even if one opportunity looks promising, don't slow down the search until you receive a firm offer. Apply to positions on your own and register with all of the placement agencies in your area (big ones and boutique firms). Remember, they don't work for you; they work for the company that's paying them for the best hire. This means you must treat agencies with the same professionalism and respect as you would a direct employer.
Am I interview-ready?: In the past, you might have gotten away with interviewing with one or two people and shaking hands on an immediate offer. Today, you should expect to go through more interviews with more people than in previous years. Treat each one as if it's the most important because, even one person in the process can nix your chances by raising doubts about your candidacy. Practice every possible question you think you may be asked, and research the employer and its competition thoroughly. While you might not be grilled on that, it demonstrates an interest in this particular job and field.
Am I being flexible?: Offer to freelance or accept contract work if that's what it takes to get your foot in the door. You can also negotiate working from home part of the time as a benefit to both parties. Don't hold out for the most perfect opportunity if it means passing up one that could work well for you right now. Generating an income and ending a gap in your work history can be benefits on their own. Be selective about the kind of work you want, but not unrealistic, given the current economic conditions.
Am I following up?: Every day, people tell me in frustration that they've submitted dozens and dozens of resumes online -- and still no response. Don't rely on applying online and waiting for the phone to ring. It won't ring. It is up to you to follow up once you've applied. Cold call to find out who the decision-maker is and then use all of your connections (or make new ones) to figure out how to get your name in front of that decision-maker. Be ready to make a smart, strong, succinct case for why you deserve to be considered for that role. When you interview, don't leave without asking about the next steps: when they expect to make a decision, and when you should hear from someone.
Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on ABC's "Good Morning America," and the CEO of Women For Hire. Connect with her at www.womenforhire.com.