NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The longer you don't have a job, the harder it can be to find one.
It probably feels like you have been sidelined for an eternity and that your prospects of landing a job soon are slim to none. As skeptical as you have a right to be, that doesn't have to be the way it works out for you. You can and will get a new job.
The job market has heated up. The U.S. unemployment rate is at 5.5% right now, the lowest it's been since before the Great Recession, meaning that employers have fewer available workers to choose from -- which is great news if you're looking for a job. You have a window right now for a major reboot and a return to work. But you will need a decisive strategy to reposition the time out, rediscover your confidence, and prepare for the inevitable push-back you may receive from potential employers who are wary of hiring someone who has been out of work for a while. The last item -- push-back -- sounds obvious but hiring slows down in the summer and hiring managers are notorious for radio silence and bad form. You will need to be bold! Lots of people are, and will be, out of work for extended periods of time. Long-term unemployment is no longer an exception to the rule. So get over the embarrassment, shame, and discouragement if you want to get back on track.
The real question is not whether companies will hire someone who has been on the bench for a year or two. They do and they will. Instead: How have these unemployed folks used the time off? If they have been productive -- taking classes, volunteering, assuming a leadership role in a professional work-related group, consulting, or engaging in aggressive job search -- then yes, they are solid candidates. If they cannot demonstrate their productivity and resourcefulness, an efficient interview process will screen them out.
Here are six tips on handling long-term unemployment and shrinking the time to land. If you have been out of work for an extended period of time -- one, two or more years -- this advice is for you.
1. Don't appear frustrated or discouraged.
Folks who have been out of work for a long stretch face an enormous challenge and one which is not usually considered: the accumulated discouragement of an extended search. When you carry the burden of a job search that seems to drag on forever into meetings and conversations, everyone will see and feel your frustration. It is inevitable and it is also deeply damaging to your reputation and the impression you make. People will not spend time with you if the experience is unpleasant. Find a place to store your feelings temporarily and don't let them out of your sight until you have landed.
2. Be focused on your goal.
Get clear on your target and communicate it with precision and passion; the kind of job you want, where it is located, and the ideal qualifications for candidates. In this current market it is not a bad idea to have a couple of targets. Having only one exposes you to the risk of pursuing a direction that won't produce a job. Having too many targets makes the process confusing, sloppy, and inefficient.
3. Have a plan.
For everyone in job search -- both those who have lost jobs and others who may have voluntarily taken a time-out -- the key to success is having a game plan. That is the strategy you use to put yourself out there. It includes everything from your resume, cover letters, follow-up correspondence, interview questions and practice, and research on the market and companies. It must all be seamless and support your target, with no exceptions.
4. Establish your credibility as a long-term job-seeker.
When it comes to establishing your credibility, you will need to distinguish yourself from other candidates. That happens in your resume and in how you explain your time out. Of course, the story you tell people must be truthful but it also needs to position you in the very best possible light. So if you took two years off by choice or you have been unemployed for that length of time, how did you spend it? Can you show that the time out was used productively and makes you an even better candidate? Employers like candidates with skills and experience that are current. What can you do to convince them that you have been engaged and remain valuable? That could include getting a relevant certification, assuming a leadership role in a professional association, or building and maintaining a dynamic network of contacts. Perhaps you traveled around the world, learned a foreign language, or ran a marathon. All are accomplishments, too.
Try to be industry and job specific if possible so that the time you spend giving it away has the potential to introduce you to people who may hear of opportunities. And if you take on a leadership role, like chairing a committee, it will offer visibility. If it is not industry specific, it still gets you out, gives a feeling of short term accomplishment, and may introduce you to other volunteers who have access to information.
6. Get help.
Occasionally when we feel stuck it is helpful to get an outside, objective perspective. Identify a group of people who are unemployed and form a job search support group. Sometimes power, insight, and motivation are achieved through a collective effort. If you can afford it, invest in a session with a career coach who comes highly recommended. These steps will give you help and advice you need plus accountability. Most important, there is a human connection with other people in a similar situation -- or someone who knows just how to sympathize.
As a career coach, new clients typically reach out to me for advice at a time of crisis. They fear that something bad is about to happen job-wise and they would like to avoid or limit the fallout. Or the event has already occurred and it is obvious that they screwed up in handling it. People in extended job search fall somewhere between these two endpoints -- what has happened (the loss of their job) and what they fear will happen as a result of their time out (permanent unemployment). The fact that they are in job search is indisputable; but their belief that it will grow deeper and more difficult to emerge from is sadly self-fulfilling. To many, it feels like a lose-lose situation with no solution in sight. But, trust me: The cycle can and will be broken.
Roy Cohen is a career coach and the author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide: Success Secrets of a Career Coach, the definitive book on building a career on Wall Street.