How to look employable while you're still unemployed

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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average length of unemployment for younger job seekers is 36 weeks, up significantly from the 20-week time frame prior to the recession. For older workers – those over 55 – it is 54 weeks.

Although the ailing economy has lengthened job searches, many hiring managers are still generally reticent about hiring job seekers with long gaps in employment.

Here are a few steps you can take to enhance your competitiveness while you’re unemployed.

1. Position yourself as a thought leader

Chad Oakley, president and chief operating officer of Charles Aris, Inc., a global executive search firm based in Greensboro, NC, says he’s known a couple of job seekers with backgrounds in wealth management who wrote one-page assessments of their take on Wall Street each day while they were out of work. “When they went to interview, they had a hundred pages of market recaps that [showed] their passion for the industry and their hard work ethic," Oakley tells eFinancialCareers. "It was as though they’d never stopped working.”

Dana Leavey, a New York-based career consultant, says job seekers should also consider blogging about their specialty. It will give you some credibility and possibly help strengthen network relationships with people who could offer you a job in the future, she tells eFinancialCareers.

Other ways of showcasing your expertise include writing an e-book, teaching classes at a college or running workshops, says Angela Lussier, associate director for alumni career programs at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

2. Update your skills

Study descriptions of jobs you aspire to get and take note of those required or preferred skills you don’t have. The down time is a great opportunity to acquire these skills. “While applying for jobs, you could look for places to take courses – whether at the library, the community college or on,” says Lussier.

3. Do some consulting

Short-term consulting gigs that last anywhere from two weeks to three months – even if they pay less than your customary rate – can be a great way to keep your skills from rusting, says Oakley.

“It demonstrates that other people in the market place saw value in you,” he says. “It says I’m a worker and idle time doesn’t sit well with me.”

4. Volunteer

Volunteering helps build relationships, sharpen skills and improve self-esteem worth, says Lussier.

“Be strategic,” she says. “If you want to be a teacher and you’re having a hard time getting into the school system, what non-profits cater to kids? It’s also helpful with self-worth. When people have been out of work for a year, their self-esteem is low. With volunteering, you feel good about yourself. It gives you a sense of purpose and definitely structures your time better.”

5. Address the gap before they do

Oakley says that during interviews, applicants should seize the initiative in addressing the gap issue.

“Shine a bright light on the gap during the interview process,” he says. “Beat them to the punch. Be proactive. The only way you will ever get hired when you have a significant gap on your resume is when that company feels you are 100 percent comfortable talking about it. If they have to probe or dig, they will assume the worst.”

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