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The Unemployed Must Take Charge

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Over the past 12 months, I've worked closely with several people who are trying to find work. Another week of unemployment is another week of worrying about how to pay for basic living expenses. With every good job lead or interview, there's hope. With every unreturned call or rejection, there's heartache.

So the jobless numbers are very sobering and very real to me:

-- 584,000 people filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits in the week ended July 25. That was an increase of 25,000 from the previous week.

-- 6.2 million people collecting unemployment checks.

-- 6.5 million jobs slashed from the labor market.

This is the only recession since the Great Depression that has wiped out all job growth from the previous business cycle, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Further, with less than one job opening for every five job seekers, unemployed workers are getting stuck in unemployment for long periods. Twenty-nine percent have been jobless for more than half a year.

In an increasingly crowded field of job applicants, how can you make your résumé rise to the top of the pile?

For one, get some help. Here's a good recommendation: For $16.99 you can find some great tips and strategies for landing a job in "Job Hunting for Dummies" by Max Messmer, chairman and chief executive of Robert Half International, a large specialized staffing firm.

"Job Hunting for Dummies," this month's Color of Money Book Club selection, packs a lot of information in 358 pages. Like many books in Wiley's "Dummies" series, it's easy to read in nugget-size chunks.

Messmer, who has offered career counseling for years, gives some key advice at the beginning of the book, which is a second edition.

First, as the statistics I listed show, you are not alone. Why is that important? Because not having a job doesn't mean you are a failure.

As he puts it: "Included in this vast constituency of job seekers are people from every walk of life: blue-collar workers and white-collar workers, high school dropouts and PhDs, engineers and scientists, and people of all ages, races and religions."

It's also important to know you are not alone, because it shatters a common job-hunting myth that is self-defeating: that being unemployed puts you at a tremendous disadvantage.

"Employers today understand that there are many reasons someone may be unemployed," Messmer writes.

Don't brood.

"Whatever sequence of events, whatever twists of fate, whatever unfortunate choices or strings of bad luck or internal politics may have landed you in your current situation -- all that is history," he writes. "Keep looking ahead, not behind you."

Everything you do during your job search could lead to employment.

"Every phone call you make, every person you meet, every meeting you attend and every article you read -- has the potential to produce the one lead that will eventually result in your being hired for a job."

Finally, Messmer says: "The easiest way to get the help you need is to ask for it. The worst thing that can happen is that someone might say no."

What a great pep talk.

Now that you're pumped, what should you do?

Get organized, Messmer writes in the first chapter.

"Many people who are looking for jobs -- perhaps because they figure that their situation is only 'temporary' -- never really get themselves properly organized," he writes.

But be careful not to let the organizing trap you into busywork. Messmer said he met one job seeker who spent nearly two weeks creating a database of the names of people at almost 300 companies. The problem was, he didn't contact a single person on the list.

"Your job search is not simply to keep busy," Messmer writes. "It's to make sure that the things you're doing to keep busy are producing meaningful results."

In six sections, Messmer walks job seekers though getting organized, writing résumés and cover letters, drumming up job leads, and interviewing.

I can't promise this book will land you a job, but the information will give you useful tools and tips. And it may restore your hope that you won't be unemployed for long.

It's easy to be a member of our book club. We don't meet -- at least not in person. We come together for a live online discussion. Join me Aug. 27 at noon at http://www.washingtonpost.com/discussions. Messmer will be on hand to take your job-search questions.

Every month, as a bonus, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Job Hunting for Dummies," send an e-mail to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name and address.

-- By mail: Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

-- By e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com.

Comments and questions are welcome, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses are not always possible. Please note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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