unemployment

Workers face tough choice as unemployment drags on

Oct. 26, 2012 at 8:11 AM ET

Mike Segar / Reuters /
Job seekers wait to meet with employers at a career fair Wednesday in New York City.

One of the defining features of the current economic downturn is that when people lose their job, they tend to remain unemployed for a loooong time. Of the nation's 12 million unemployed workers, 40 percent have been unemployed more than six months, and the average duration of unemployment is nine months.

Many workers inevitably struggle with the question of whether to strategically pursue jobs within their chosen field or just grab any job they can get.

Obviously, if bills are piling up and you need to get food on the table, you happily take any available job. But what if you have some savings set aside and can afford to ride out your job search for a while?

There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules in that case, experts said.

“There is no one right answer. You need to do what’s best for you,” said David Palileo, a recruiter for Synapse Product Development.

Cathi Hight, president of the Boulder Area Human Resource Association in Colorado, echoed Palileo’s comments, noting that both long employment gaps and unusual, interim jobs are increasingly common these days. “HR people are a little less judgmental, because a lot of people are out of work – a lot of HR people are out of work. They get it.”

Whether you take any job you can find or hold out for something in line with your long-term career goals may depend on what industry you’re in. “Think about what industry you’re in – what’s the future for that industry? If you’re in a declining industry, you’re going to need to find some resources to switch industries, switch careers,” said Josh Warborg, district president at Robert Half International, a staffing firm. “However, if you’re in an industry like IT or health care, you may be better off staying in your field and hunting down an opportunity there.”

However, Joe Bonura, author of the e-book “Throw the Rabbit and Get That Job In 30 Days or Less!,” advises job seekers to take any job they can get. He says it’s important to do something productive, even if it wasn’t what you were trained to do. “I would clean toilets in between [jobs] so I could keep my pride and keep earning money,” Bonura said. “While I’m cleaning toilets, I’d be thinking, ‘What am I going to do this afternoon so I can get the job I really want to do?’ And there’s no shame in that. There’s no shame in any labor. The big thing to do is maintain your self-esteem.”

Whether you hold out for the job you really want or take any job you can get, experts recommend addressing that choice in your resume and cover letter.

For those who take any job they can find, Hight recommends noting it as an “interim” position. Tell prospective employers that you had to make careful decisions during this difficult economic time. She notes that it’s important to mention something positive about that interim job in your cover letter. “Don’t make it sound like complete drudgery. Tell them you learned something new on the job. Then, potential employers can say, ‘Wow, this person made a hard decision, but they’re making the most of it and learning something.’”

While Hight advises applicants to address their interim position in the cover letter, she says it’s important to talk about the job they are applying for as well. Many cover letters and resumes are scanned and filtered by computers before a human ever sees them, so it’s important to include the right keywords for a particular job in those documents; otherwise, Hight cautions, computer filters may dismiss a resume before a real person ever has the chance to lay eyes on it.

Palileo agrees that it’s important to address both gaps in employment and those interim jobs on your resume. If you took a job just to get through a tough spot, Palileo says, it’s important to put the right spin on it, both on your resume and in an interview. “How do you encapsulate that [job] into your story? Rather than say ‘barista,’ say that you’re a java addict who dove into the subculture of coffee houses.”

Dana Macario is a Seattle-area writer.

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