Lessons From a Fruitless Quest

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Even as the finance industry writhes amid recession and restructuring, some jobless professionals are having trouble adjusting their expectations to the new reality.

A column in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer details the saga of one Byron Wilson, a former investment advisor, insurance company vice president and Big Four CPA. In 2007, Wilson left a steady job to build his own investment advisory business at Smith Barney, leaving little time to build a clientele before financial markets went into the tank. He was let go last August with no severance pay or company-paid outplacement help.

His efforts to find new work have been diligent but strikingly ineffective. Inquirer writer Monica Yant Kinney details the number of chief executives and recruiters Wilson has written to, the number of networking e-mails he has sent, and his job-search-related expenditures. But the only important statistic is his interview count after almost a year of full-time job-hunting: zero.

After all that work down the drain, you'd think someone would start getting the message that it's time for a different strategy. Here are some observations:

Unfortunate Realities

Wilson relates that two insurance companies called asking if he wanted to be an underwriter. His response, according to Kinney: He was "alarmed by the notion of returning to the bottom after being at the top." We'd observe that, in an industry turned upside down, that kind of thinking is misplaced. As eFC News wrote in a column about avoiding the "overqualified trap": "If you make history your baseline, you'll come off as feeling entitled - perhaps the most toxic label in today's job market."

Elevation of Quantity Over Quality

Wilson has written to more than 1,200 recruiters, 1,600 CEOs and 1,600 alumni of his undergrad alma mater (Notre Dame) and his MBA program (Columbia).

On the one hand, many experts advise casting your net as wide as possible, because "you never know who will happen to know of a job opening that's right for you." On the other hand, writing to every single recruiter and business leader profiled in Who's Who seems a bit much. We

suggest Wilson devote as much effort to researching his targets and winnowing his list as he's apparently devoted to finding and following up with the thousands of decision-makers he did contact. We suspect he'd have landed at least a few interviews by now.

Rigidity

When asked if he has "a drop-dead date before changing strategy or standards," Kinney says Wilson "tensed up." Then he said his wife suggested applying for a stopgap job (managing a local fast-food restaurant), which he rejected out of hand. (We can't blame him for that.)

Failing to Get Professional Advice

Kinney's recounting of Wilson's spending includes no mention of a career coach. That omission seems a mistake, in view of his meager results to date. He did join the Financial Executives Networking Group, or The FENG, a nationwide job-referral organization.

"Most of the people attending (FENG) chapter meetings are unemployed," Wilson told Kinney. "It's better to be talking to people who have jobs than those who don't."

Not necessarily. While job seekers have to be careful in managing their time, one never knows who's going to have a contact or idea that could be useful. While FENG might not be the right group, networking serves the useful purposes of (a) getting you out of the house and (b) providing a network of people in the same boat, who can offer a degree of moral support. Professional groups and alumni groups are always worth looking into.

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