We all know this is a difficult time to find a job—but I said difficult, not impossible. You absolutely can land a new position in this economy, provided you approach your search creatively, compensate for your shortcomings, and use the tools you've got in your corner:
1. Think outside the box
• As I mentioned previously, consulting on a project is a fantastic way to get in the door, because it lets a potential employer give you a test-drive. If it's feasible, ask if you can volunteer or intern for a month or two. (Who's going to turn down someone offering to work for free?)
• Skip the job fairs. A 2009 survey of human resources executives by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that attending job fairs was the least effective strategy for getting hired; in a period of high unemployment, the ratio of seekers to employers isn't working in your favor.
• Use your network of professional connections to land informational interviews. In person is best, but if that's not practical, phone or e-mail can work, too. Make it clear you know your contact isn't hiring, but say you want to pick her brain about the firm and the industry. Use the opportunity to give her a sense of who you are—the more people who know about you, the more connections you have to potential jobs.
2. Brace for the tough questions
• If you're underqualified, turn the tables. Ask the hiring manager to point out what skills she feels you're lacking—then explain that while you may be coming up short, you do have some experience in those areas. If possible, bring in past work to illustrate this, and have a former manager back you up, confirming that you're a quick study.
• If you're overqualified, put yourself in the manager's position: She may be worried that you want this job only as a stopgap until something better comes along, or that you'll resent taking a step down the ladder (which makes for a lousy team player), or that your salary expectations will be a deal-breaker. Then bring up each concern in the interview and explain why none will be a problem.
• If you lack must-have skills—like a particular style of business writing or familiarity with relevant computer applications—see if your local community college or continuing education program offers courses that can boost your aptitude in those areas.
3. Accentuate the positive
• Channel an upbeat attitude. It sounds obvious, but it's amazing how few people take that advice seriously. Your energy comes through in your demeanor, your cover letter, your phone calls, and in interviews—and a confident, enthusiastic outlook will make employers want to hire you.
• Get out there and network! If you aren't on Facebook, what are you waiting for? Ask your friends for help in your search, and you'll be surprised how many people your people know. Alumni groups and professional associations are also great networks to tap into. The idea is to get your connections to spread the word—it just may be that a friend of a friend of a friend works at the firm you have in your sights, which puts you that much closer to getting an interview.
• Once you land a job, here's your first assignment: Come to work with a great attitude, do your job thoroughly and conscientiously, and seek opportunities to take on more responsibility. Don't look at the clock, and don't worry about the money. Yes, you read that right. The goal when you're starting out—or starting over—is to make yourself indispensable. That's the surest path to making more money down the road.