This week I'm in California, where unemployment exceeds 12 percent, to lead a seminar on how to get a job at Calfironia first lady Maria Shriver's 2009 Women's Conference.
The people of California know what everyone looking for a job today knows: The competition is steep and the process is challenging. One way to get your foot in the door is to seek help from strangers.
Volunteer at Events
The goal when job searching is to put yourself in a position to meet new people who can get you closer to your next employer.
One way to meet such people is to volunteer to work at an industry conference or networking event. They take place every week all over the country, but too often there's a price tag -- whether it's $25 or $200 -- that makes it difficult for someone who is out of work to attend.
But every event needs volunteers -- so call the organizers and offer your time and talent in exchange for entry. The best assignments: working the name tag or registration table, where you can meet and greet everyone, or manning the speakers' lounge. Or offer to be a speaker escort.
Working the event and wearing the "staff" name tag puts you in a position where people want to say hello to you to get the inside scoop and the lay of the land. Plus, it's a great way for you to strike up a conversation and get that introduction. Ask for a business card and agree to follow up after the event.
Go to Events Alone
Whether you're attending a free or paid networking function -- whether it's for 25 people, 200 or 2,000 -- force yourself to go alone. I know it's not easy, but one of the biggest mistakes I used to make was to bring someone with me -- a colleague, an employee, a friend -- and we'd stand in a corner talking about everyone, instead of to everyone. That totally defeated the purpose of being there.
So I started going alone, which was nerve-racking at first, and I said I couldn't leave without introducing myself to at least three new people. Sometimes nothing comes of it -- mediocre handshake, barely a smile. Other times something phenomenal happens: a new contact, new lead, new resource that I never would have gotten had I not put myself out there.
Break the ice with a question about the person's connection to the event, or compliment an accessory or just make a comment about something as simple as the food -- and you're on your way.
Never ever introduce yourself as "Hi, I'm Margaret and I'm unemployed or I just lost my job or I was laid off." If you were working, you wouldn't say, "Hi, I'm Margaret and I'm employed." Always introduce yourself by sharing who you are and what you do. Even without a paycheck, you still own your professional identity -- you're still that accountant, graphic designer, customer service representative or sales associate.
To Find a Job, Network Online
Follow on Twitter and Facebook the companies you're targeting and the people who work where you want to work or in the industry you're targeting.
The little secret is that companies are often quicker to engage with people on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter than when you submit a resume online. It's hip, new, fresh to them -- and frankly, there's less competition for you.
Continue to submit online resumes, but use the social networking sites to go deeper -- to ask questions about the hiring process and to impress someone with your passion for their organization.
I answer job search questions all day on Twitter at Twitter.com/ToryJohnson, so ask me anything you want in 140 characters and you'll get my advice. The same applies to many employers and career advisors as well.
Be Specific About Your Needs
Make it easy for someone to help you by spelling out very clearly and concisely what you want. When someone e-mails me with four screens of text and says they're lost, it's very difficult for me to help.
But when someone emails to say, do you know someone at this company or how do you think I can get my foot in the door in this industry, there's a greater chance I can steer them in the right direction.
When you're asking someone to help you, tell them exactly what you need: If it's a referral, say so. If it's feedback, say so. Ask directly: "Do you know anyone at this company ... or can you recommend a resource in this industry?" This makes it so much easier for someone to reply to your request and not ignore it.
Keep It Short and Sweet
Even if you don't have a personal connection, you can still reach out to total strangers, especially through social networking sites, a professional association, an alumni group, a blog and so on.
You shouldn't always aim straight for the boss. An assistant or peer within an organization can be helpful in getting your resume seen.
Make a cold call or send a cold e-mail and say, "I realize you don't know me, but I got your name here. I recently applied for a position at your company. Here's why I'd be a great asset. I'm hoping you might be willing to take a look at my resume and if you'd feel comfortable passing it on."
Or ask for just a few minutes of the person's time. You're more likely to get five minutes by phone with someone you don't know than by asking to buy them lunch. Time is so precious to everyone today -- so skip the lunch offer and ask for the five minutes. You'd be surprised: You can accomplish a whole lot in that time.
I'm rooting for your success.