I Need A Job!

Photography by William S. Speer May 31, 2009

 In the harshest U.S. recession in 33 years, millions of workers have become casualties. In Florida alone, more than 400,000 positions were lost last year in the worst state job performance in the nation.

First-quarter 2009 brought more bleak news: The 9.4 percent February unemployment rate—Florida’s highest since April 1976—was much higher than the 8.1 percent national jobless rate. An estimated 874,000 Floridians were looking for work out of a labor force of 9.25 million, including roughly 100,000 newly unemployed in the first two months of the year.

Yes, it's hard work getting a job these days in Sarasota and Manatee counties. But it’s not impossible.

The hidden job market still contains a rich vein of profitable employment if you mine it diligently, says Toni Ripo, Career Service Center coordinator at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.

Ripo says applicants who do their homework on potential employers can still find jobs. But they need to have a plan, work consistently on a job-seeking schedule, and track all résumé activity.

And they need to talk with the right people.

"Almost the last person to know a job is available is in human resources but it's usually the first person you talk with," Ripo says. "Talk with a department head if you really want to know when a job is going to come open.”

Another tip: Don’t make your cover letter or résumés too long or cluttered. “It’s not an essay assignment,” says Ripo. “It is to engage the reader to action. Tell them what you can do for them. That’s what they want to know.”

Rip advises holding out for the job you really want or continuing a search even if forced to take a job just to pay the bills.

"People, if they've been looking for some time, get to where they are almost willing to take any position," she says. "It's best to avoid that."

Attracting employer interest among torrents of résumés these days requires different approaches for a college graduate compared with someone at the mid-point of their career or a top-level executive.

Biz941 asked Ripo to give advice to three job seekers at these different stages of their careers.

Newbie: Think Sharp Resumes and Internships

Problem: Maybe the most difficult position to be in is coming directly out of college with no job in hand, Ripo says. USF senior Brandon Zimmerman, who is scheduled to graduate in December, is in that position.

Zimmerman, 25, returned to school four years ago to train for a career as a financial analyst after his job as an auto mechanic at Lexus grew too boring and repetitious. The fat paycheck just wasn’t enough job satisfaction. “There seemed to be no opportunity to move up,” Zimmerman says.

Compounding his situation is the upheaval in the financial world that has caused layoffs.

Ripo says this year she’s counseling all college grads to create three resumes: one within their field, one that targets different positions within their industry (if you can’t find a job as a financial analyst, maybe your research and communications skills would work in a brokerage firm’s marketing department) and one outside their degree but that uses the skill sets they’ve developed in college (a B.A. in finance may also be a good fit in sales if the resume is written properly).

In Zimmerman’s case, Ripo helped him prepare his résumé by using key words in the finance industry to immediately connect with employers. “You need to start using the language of the field you’ve chosen,” Ripo says. “These buzzwords start to pop. Then you really focus on your skills and what they can do for the employer.”

Students should also work at internships in their fields. Employers love them because they can check out the talent and complete project work at little to no cost. And potential employees get to meet prospective employers and test how much job satisfaction they get from actually doing the work, she says.


Name: Brandon Zimmerman of Sarasota

Age: 25

Problems: A graduating college senior, Zimmerman is looking at a tough job market in finance.

Career edge: Good employment track record at a Lexus dealership in the maintenance department where he made $50,000-plus.

Counselor advice: Research potential employers in depth rather than throwing résumés at every possible opening. Speak the language of the employer so they know you’ve done your homework. Take an internship in the field before graduation.

Mid-career: Network, network, network

Problem: Amy Smith is an experienced 35-year-old administrative assistant who moved to Venice from New Orleans in June 2008 to be closer to family. She left a job with publicly traded Stewart Enterprises that paid nearly $40,000 with full benefits. But after searching fruitlessly for three months and dipping into her 401(k), Smith finally accepted a position with an insurance company in Nokomis that paid far less.

Smith says she had no idea how tough the market had grown. She previously had no trouble finding work in Illinois, where she had gone to college, and in Louisiana.

"It was frustrating," Smith says. "Every place you went there were so many applicants it almost made you feel hopeless."

Smith had a professional résumé and glowing references but no network of professionals in her new hometown. So she tried online employment firms and and registered with five different staffing agencies.

"It was very time-consuming going through the staffing agencies but that's where I got the best results," Smith says. "I might have gotten one response from the online firms."

Analysis: Ripo applauds Smith's gumption in moving to an area just to be closer to family. But in trying to find a job in a tough economy, Ripo says Smith is underusing her marketing degree from Western Illinois University.

“She needs to identify employers who need someone with her degree,” Ripo says. “Pick up the phone and talk to these people. Online job searches aren’t usually enough.”

Ripo says Smith must research how to return to her preferred position as an executive assistant.

"She needs to identify who she wants to work for," Ripo says. "Most organizations have a Web

page with a career link. Check a lot of those. She still doesn’t know the area well enough. She’s got a marketing degree that could be very useful in this economy."

Ripo says it’s important to keep the conversation going when contacting a targeted company to keep the door open. “If you’re talking about future opportunities, there’s no immediate need for them to meet right now to keep the conversation going,” she says.

And be sure to attend networking sessions offered by chambers of commerce or other organizations, Ripo advised Smith. “Many are free or charge a nominal fee,” she says. “You could meet your next employer there.”


Name: Amy Smith of Venice, formerly of New Orleans

Age: 35

Problem: Moved from Louisiana during a tight economy;

accepted a job to pay the bills at half her former salary.

Career edge: Surviving Hurricane Katrina while working for publicly traded Stewart Enterprises shows a high degree of dependability and resilience. Marketing degree from Western Illinois University fits many job descriptions in this part of the country.

Counselor advice: Smith should involve herself in her new community by attending networking functions, volunteer and expand her contacts in her new community. She should make sure her résumé reflects just how much she can do for an employer.

Executive Level: Go National

Problem: Senior executives face different employment challenges. Sharon Welsh, 59, of Venice, has been searching unsuccessfully for work for nearly a year.

She boasts a master’s degree in corporate law from Penn State University but said she feels it has not helped her, particularly at her age. She’s applied for teaching positions and even part-time work at Publix and Wal-Mart.

“I don’t even put my degrees down any more when applying for work,” she says. “They look at you like you’re crazy.”

Welsh admits that earlier she was less than motivated to find a full-time job with all its stresses. But as her savings dwindled down to “five or six years’ worth,” she needs—and wants—to work. She’s even considering relocating to Colorado where she has contacts who could help her connect with employers.

Analysis: Ripo says Welsh is speaking with the wrong employers. She should be talking with decision-makers in her field if she wants to land something satisfying.

“They might not have openings right now but they’re the ones who know where the money is tucked away for new positions,” Ripo says. “When that money is going to be spent, you want to have already spoken with them and made an impression.”

Age can be overcome, says Ripo. Welsh needs to make sure that she has a high energy level and positive outlook, and that she dresses and styles her hair in a contemporary fashion. “Energy is the most important, though,” says Ripo. “We all know there are 22-year-olds who can be lethargic, and no employer wants that.”

As far as updating job skills in order to better compete with younger applicants, Ripo says generally applicants don’t need to worry about being out of date unless they’ve been out of the workforce for five years. And because Welsh’s profession is not in a technology field, she probably is not going to need to worry about her technology skills.

Ripo says relocating, as Welsh is considering, can pay off. Top executive positions are tougher to land if you limit yourself to one locale, especially if, as in Welsh’s case, home is a small city. Opportunities abound around the state and nation if you are willing to relocate. Instead of applying to Publix in Venice, Welsh might consider applying at the Publix headquarters in Lakeland, where corporate legal skills may be needed. She also should target the region’s largest companies to see if anyone needs her corporate expertise.

Since Welsh has savings, she should avoid applying for lower-skilled positions at Wal-Mart when she is obviously overqualified. Employers know these types of people will leave as soon as they see something better, and applying for the wrong job will prolong the entire process of Welsh finding the right fit.

Ripo counsels patience for job seekers at the managerial or executive level. Management-level jobs take an average of six months to land while executives can expect to look for a year to find the job they really want. “That’s why it’s important to have six months to a year’s savings,” she says.


Name: Sharon Welsh of Venice

Age: 59

Problems: Experienced, middle-age corporate lawyer out of work for a year applies for low-skilled jobs. Employers say she’s overqualified. She wonders if they’re really saying she’s too old.

Career edge: Master’s degree in corporate law from Penn State University with bachelor’s degree in design. Mobile, with few family ties and ample savings.

Counselor advice: Stop applying for jobs beneath her qualifications, and expand job to a wide geographic area. Refresh dated job skills (if she needs to) and appearance to be better able to compete with younger applicants.

Don’t Give Up

Despite unemployment trends and a sinking economy, 23 percent of U.S. workers expect to leave their existing positions WHEN? (WE ALL PLAN TO LEAVE EVENTUALLY!, according to a 2008 study commissioned by AchieveGlobal. More than 738 human resources and business managers worldwide participated.

In the United States, 47 percent of respondents say the highest percent of turnover is occurring within Generation Y employees under 25 (42 percent) followed by frontline managers (28 percent), and women (20 percent).

Attrition among high-performing employees is largely catalyzed by insufficient compensation, lack of growth opportunities and employee contributions not being recognized, says AchieveGlobal CEO Sharon Daniels.

Unemployed workers

County                         Feb2009        Jan2009         Feb2008

Manatee County          15,944          14,854              7,449

Sarasota County           17,782           17,097              9,324

SOURCE: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation 

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