How to crack into today's job market

Veterinarian Maegan Weekly with a patient and his family.

Tess Vigeland: On the first Friday of each month, you can almost hear people crossing their fingers as the government releases the latest job figures.

This week, we learned that the unemployment rate dropped ever so slightly to an even 9 percent.
And companies added a net 80,000 jobs to their payrolls.

The overall picture, though, is still, in a word, awful. Nearly half of the unemployed have been looking for six months or longer. For every available job right now, there are more than four people fighting for it. But someone's getting it, right? So what accounts for the winners?

We sent Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman to figure out what's behind a job-hunt success.


Dog barking

Little girl: Can I pet your dog?

Woman: Yes, you can.

Little girl: Thank you.

Mitchell Hartman: It's a Hallmark moment at Willamette Valley Animal Hospital in Salem, Ore. Two little girls, their mom and the frightened Chihuahua puppy they just got from the pound are visiting the vet for the first time.

And here's the young animal doc -- just out of vet school -- Maegan Weekly.

Maegan Weekly: Hello. I'm Dr. Weekly. So this is Lucky? How long have you had Lucky?

Mom: Two days.

Weekly: How are we adjusting so far?

Mom: A little shy.

For Weekly, treating family pets in a suburban strip mall is more than a Hallmark moment -- it's a godsend. After graduating with a diploma from Oregon State University and $130,000 in student-loan debt, the young vet looked for work for well over a year without success.

Weekly: So for a while, I mainly looked within reasonable driving distance. And then as months went by, I expanded to all of the state. And every place I'd go, you know, there were so many other experienced people looking for jobs, so...

Hartman: Did you despair at any point?

Weekly: Um, I did. My husband has a good job and was able to support me. Towards the end, I was going around the state, handing out resumes, you know, walking into clinics, and that's how I ended up getting this job, was walking in.

She was lucky; she landed a job close to home. John Maddigan's the man who hired her.

John Maddigan: If someone has enough initiative to drive and hand-deliver a resume to every single veterinarian in the Willamette Valley, this person must really want a job.

Maddigan's vet clinic has expanded right through the recession. But at the time Maegan Weekly walked through the door, he didn't have a job to offer. Still...

Maddigan: What I can't teach is attitude. And she had a phenomenal attitude. And I think all employers -- whether it's for me or small business or large business -- we look to buy attitude.

And so he did, bringing her on full-time.

And here's the thing: With so few jobs being created -- and so many people competing for them -- you have to offer a potential employer something unique, so they'll pick you out of the crowd.

Ford Myers: The woman you're describing was very lucky, she just happened to hit it at the right time with the right person. I think it's the "needle-in-the-haystack" approach.

Career coach Ford Myers is author of the book "Get the Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring." And he insists success is much more likely to come from an entrepreneurial mindset: First, identifying and targeting a few carefully chosen professional connections, and then working them -- whether face-to-face, or via social media sites like LinkedIn.

Myers: Stop presenting yourself as a candidate, stop acting like an applicant. And instead, start acting like a solution provider, start acting more like a consultant, a problem solver.

Outplacement expert John Challenger agrees that rising above a crowded field often requires this same entrepreneurial approach. And since many employers have doubts about hiring the long-term unemployed, he says selling yourself may mean lowering your price.

John Challenger: Sometimes it may come down to a negotiation, where you might say to that employer, "I'm open to taking something less, but let me prove it to you. And if you like the work I've done, would you consider paying me at the level that I was making before?"

And Challenger says if you have been out of work for a while, make sure you've got something to show for it.

Challenger: It makes sense to take volunteer work, project or part-time work. Say you took time off to take care of an aging parent. Explain that, not only in the resume and put that in, but in the interview.

Maegan Weekly, the young vet, did all that -- volunteering, working at the Humane Society. She says it kept her skills current and her spirits up. But she's pretty sure what landed her a job in the end wasn't listing all that stuff on the resumes that she hand-delivered up and down the state. It was just the fact that she showed up.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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