what to do if you can’t find a job

You’ve been sending out applications, building your network, cultivating an impressive online presence, and everything else you’ve heard you should do in a job search, but what if you still can’t find a job? That can be a terrifying spot to be in – but don’t panic. Here are five steps you can take if your job search isn’t producing results.

1. Temp. Temp agencies aren’t the reliable solution to being out of work that they used to be when the economy was better, but they’re still an option worth exploring. Your chances of getting temp work go up if you have open availability and are willing to do a wide range of work, so try to be as flexible with temp agencies as possible. If you get those first few temp jobs, you can demonstrate that you’ll show up reliably and cheerfully, which will make you more likely to start getting regular calls.

Temping will, at a minimum, give you a paycheck and something to put on your resume, but it can also build connections that can help you find job leads down the road. Some temp roles are even temp-to-perm, which can give you an inside track on a more permanent position.

2. Volunteer. Volunteering can keep your skills up-to-date, give you recent work to put on your resume where you might otherwise have a period of no activity, expose you to new fields, and expand your contacts. It can also give you early leads on upcoming openings and build your network of people who are able to vouch for your work.

Volunteering can also be a great way to build a track record in a new area of work. For instance, if you want to do web design but don’t have any work experience in that area, you might be able to find a small nonprofit that would welcome your skills – allowing you to build your portfolio and point to real-life projects in interviews. (In general, if you’re interested in doing substantive work, you’ll have more luck if you reach out to smaller organizations, which usually have greater needs for volunteers and are more willing to take a chance on someone who might be untested.)

Of course, it’s important to remember that volunteering isn’t a guarantee of anything more, and you shouldn’t volunteer if you’ll be upset if it doesn’t lead to paid work. But if you’re willing to put in the time because you support the organization you’re working, it can be rewarding in multiple ways.

3. Revamp your resume. If you’re not getting interviews, there’s a good chance that your application materials are part of the problem – and if you’re like most job-seekers, revamping your resume could make an enormous difference. Most job candidates’ resumes simply list their job duties at each job they’ve held (like “maintained website” or “managed accounts receivable”). That only tells the hiring manager what your job description was; it doesn’t reveal what hiring managers care most about, which is how you performed at those jobs. Try revising your resume to focus on what you achievedat each job (such as “increased Web traffic by 30 percent over 12 months” or “built reputation for working successfully with previously unhappy clients”).

4. Revamp your cover letter. If your cover letter mainly summarizes the information in your resume, it’s not doing its job. Your cover letter should add something new to your application about why you’d be great at the job, not just summarize your employment history. Here’s a trick: Write your cover letter as if you were writing to a friend about why you’d be great at the job. By adding some personality (and staying away from summarizing your work history), you’re likely to grab an employer’s attention and start getting more interviews.

5. Apply for fewer openings, but spend more time customizing your application. When you’re feeling desperate for a job, it’s a natural impulse to apply for everything you can find. But while this sounds counterintuitive, you might actually be lowering your chances by doing that. Your chances are getting called for an interview go up significantly if you take the time to customize your cover letter for each opening you apply for. But you can’t write 15 truly customized cover letters a day – which means that if you’re applying for hundreds of jobs a month, you’re sending applications that are overly generic. Try applying for fewer jobs and putting more time into your application for each, and see if you don’t see a difference.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Mimmy*

    I can’t vouch enough for volunteering. It has not led to paid employment; however, it has allowed me to make new connections and a really good reputation for my skills in previously untested areas (mainly reviewing grants).

    I do have one question: In the paragraph about volunteering, you talk about smaller organizations are more likely to take a chance on someone without experience in the particular skill/task at hand. IME, even volunteer postings tend to ask for previous experience. I was trying to get into grant writing this way, and the one time I did have an opportunity (during a misguided attempt at post-graduate interning), it seemed they wanted someone to hit the ground running. I had no idea what the heck I was doing and was not comfortable taking this on by myself (the regular staff–an ED and a policy person) were understandably busy with their regular work, much of it involving extensive government relations.

    TL;DR: What could I do in the future to have a better experience volunteering to do something new but want experience in?

    1. Trixie*

      I could see where for something like grant writing or web programming, they want to see some examples of skill, previous experience or finished product. Maybe mores if a small shop who don’t have a lot of spare time or staff to basically train someone almost from scratch. Having worked with volunteers (and interns) from the other side of this, it takes serious thought to come up with projects they can take on.

      To gain new experience in a specific skill set, I would probably find someone in my network already doing this and seeing if I can somehow volunteer for that person. Knowing me personally may reassure them won’t have to hold my hand each step of the way.

    2. Traveler*

      Find people already doing what you want to do, and contact them to find out how they got there and if they have recommendations. If you’re polite, and keep it short and simple, most people are willing to spare a few moments to help.

    3. Grant Writer*

      When I started grant writing I worked with a seasoned grant writer to learn the tricks of the trade and I also took a certificate program (20 hours) through the university in my area. I also volunteered at a non-profit organization while taking the class.

      There will be nonprofits who want you have some knowledge but there might be a few who are willing to teach you. If you can find some classes that would be helpful. Also look at the Foundation Center’s Grant Space webpage. They give lots of info about grant writing.

      There are some good books out there as well. One is like is “The Only Grant Writing Book You Will Ever Need.”

      1. Trixie*

        I found “Demystifying Grant Seeking: What You Really Need to Do to Get Grants” very reader-friendly.

  2. Anon Accountant*

    In 2010 I applied to over 40 jobs before a career counselor from my alma mater recommended spending more time tailoring applications to jobs. There were much better results- in quantity and quality.

  3. Christy*

    I’m just about a year unemployed, and it is terrifying. My problem isn’t so much getting interviews as it is getting offers. I’ve had lots of interviews recently but they all went silent or said no. The next time I interview I’m going to dial up the pep and enthusiasm as I think I may come across as dry and uninterested. I’m not a naturally peppy person at all, and hate selling myself. Any tips for “acting” outside your comfort zone?

    1. De Minimis*

      Maybe pretend you are playing a role. I am the same way, and I kind of try to adopt a different persona when interviewing. I don’t think it’s to the point where it’s misleading or trying to be deceptive, but it is a mental trick I’ve used that has helped me.

      I had similar problems when I was unemployed…I was actually not doing too poorly as far as getting interviews, I usually got at least one a month even though the unemployment rate where I lived often exceeded 15%, but there were a lot of people out there looking who had more experience, and those were the ones who got the nod. It’s not much, but all I can say is keep trying. I eventually had to relocate, but that is not possible for everyone.

    2. kdizzle*

      Having a certain amount of enthusiasm for a job is important, but when I hire people, I tend to stay away from overly “peppy” sales-like people since it just doesn’t strike me as genuine.

      The way people display enthusiasm to me is by demonstrating that they have thoughtful questions and meaningful conversations; they’re interested in how their cog fits into the machine; they’ve thought about how their experience directly relates to our organization, and then they follow up to say that they’re actually interested in the job.

      I say, there’s no real reason to “act”…just be a version of yourself that is genuine, interested, and professesional.

      1. LAI*

        This. I completely agree with kdizzle. I definitely smile a lot and try to be enthusiastic during interviews but I don’t try to fake something that I don’t feel. I just try to be sure that I am outwardly expressing what I do feel. I show my passion for the job by demonstrating that I’ve researching the role and the organization thoroughly, that I’ve really thought about it would be like to be in this particular position and that after all of this careful thought, I’ve decided I’d be really excited about doing it.

      2. Fabulously Anonymous*

        This reminds me of my father’s advice: “Don’t tell them, show them.” To kdizzle’s point, acting peppy is just another variation of telling. Thoughtful questions and meaningful conversations is showing.

    3. nep*

      I hear you. And it can be a fine line between presenting your best self in an upbeat way, and things seeming somehow ‘forced’. In the end it’s important to show your authentic self.
      Wondering — Does your enthusiasm tend to vary from interview to interview, depending on how passionate or at least excited you are about the prospective job? It can be tough (not impossible) to drum up a sense of drive and passion when you’re interviewing for a job you’re not too keen on but you’d take because you need a job.

    4. Jamie*

      I totally get this – I struggled with the same. It takes me a while to get comfortable with strangers, but there isn’t that kind of time in an interview.

      I’d try to play this little game to outsmart myself – I’d think about a previous boss and what he thought of me and then try to act as if I was talking to someone who already thought of me like that, too. So I wasn’t trying to prove I was X, I was talking to someone who already knew I was X. Doesn’t always work, but it helped.

      For me it had to be someone who liked and respected me for work reasons – I know my family loves me but they’d love me if my only skill was building marshmallow castles. I need to focus on the people I respect who thought highly of me.

      I tend to come off very aloof, so I do deliberately try to inject some warmth by smiling when warranted (making sure it hits my eyes), appearing engaged in the ubiquitous small talk I hate (they mention their kid plays little league and I ask what position and mention my dad’s tenure as president of our town’s little league. I never care – but it’s an effort.)

      I would never attempt peppy though – I am an enthusiastic person and you’ll get that from me through my questions and interest in the job. If you need me to be perky and super overtly excited and just gosh gee whillikers this is awesome…well that’s not sustainable for me for more than about 10 minutes anyway so might as well screen each other out now.

      You don’t want a job where you have to be someone else, but you do need to make sure you can showcase who you are and the best of your talent in the short period of time of the interview. That’s tough to do for people who are naturally reserved.

      But go for warmth and interest – not cartwheels and hugs.

    5. Stephanie*

      I’m like you. Peppy would be about the last adjective one would use to describe me. I do try for upbeat and interested. My way of conveying enthusiasm is to ask pointed questions that show I did my research like “I read in Teapot Industry Trade Magazine that there’s a trend toward aluminum composites for the handles. Has the Teapot Business Intelligence team done any work in this area?”

      1. Trixie*

        Rather than peppy, I would want to see someone is engaged and easily follows where the conversation/discussion takes us.

        Engaged is a healthy distance from one-word responses (“Totally!” “Absolutely!” etc) as well as someone who hijacks a 90-second elevator response into a 27-floor let’s-stop-on-every-floor diatribe.

      2. Dan*

        There’s style and there’s substance. In every place where I’ve worked with engineers, I’m not sure “peppy” would get anybody anywhere. I’d certainly roll my eyes. Engineers need substance, and the one world “Absolutely!” answers just won’t get you anywhere.

    6. Waiting Patiently*

      And there is my problem. It’s the interview. I’m comfortable, pleasant and interested but something just isn’t going over well during the process.I suppose I should do a few mock interviews with real hr people because I’ve tried to do it with friends and family and it’s not the same. For instance, I just went finished a 2nd in person interview(yay me) a little over 2 weeks ago but I feel that I screwed up one question. I was asked if I had ever had to deal with an angry/frustrated person –so instead of using the ‘tell me about a time you’re were challenged’ questioned that I had practiced, which was really a good illustration of skills need for this job, I decided to come up with another situation on the fly… A few minutes later, I thought about asking them if they needed me to clarify any of my answers but I didn’t. I feel it’s those moments that costs me an offer.

  4. Traveler*

    Another point on volunteering: If you are only volunteering because you don’t have a job, and you’re not actually invested – there will be places that don’t even want you as a volunteer. Similarly, if you abandon your volunteer position the second you get a job, you may be burning bridges. I’ve worked at a few orgs where they won’t even take on volunteers that are job hunting, because its a waste of time/resources to go through the process only to have them abandon in a month or two when they’ve found something better. Try not to burn the organization when you leave.

    1. James M*

      Wow! What kind of place* expects free labor, but only from people who are already financially secure and has the gall to openly begrudge those who leave?

      * religious affiliates excluded as they dance to their own fife.

      1. Katriona*

        The kind of place that doesn’t have the resource to constantly get new people up to speed. A volunteer who isn’t committed could wind up doing more harm than good.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Well, nonprofits are different — the idea is usually that you’re offering your time because you care about the cause (and that therefore a good volunteer wouldn’t commit to work, have the organization invest resources in getting you up to speed, and then leave soon after).

      3. Traveler*

        The labor isn’t entirely free though. It does cost the organization in resources, particularly paid staff time, to get volunteers on board. In exchange, volunteers typically get the things listed in the article – and I’ve seen more than one person have a volunteer job turn into a paid one (though as she says, no one should count on it).

        I’m not saying you should be their slave labor, but just be clear about their expectations and your abilities/intentions. There’s a big difference between “I have a job now so I can only volunteer 4 hours a month on a Saturday or for special events” and “I have a job now so I’m never calling or showing up again”. The latter is less likely to build your network or get you a reference that could help in the future.

    2. Julia*

      Perhaps one could put together a proposal to do something concrete rather than open ended? That way there’s a timeline (a loose one) and no one expects you to stay around forever.

    3. Stephanie*

      I see a lot of volunteer postings in Phoenix that ask for long-term or full-time commitments. I’m guessing that may have to do with the large retired population out here.

      I get that it’s a hassle to constantly retrain new volunteers, but it’s not realistic of an organization to begrudge someone to leave an unpaid position for a paid one. Perhaps the organizations could be more upfront about wanting a long-term volunteer?

      1. Traveler*

        Yeah. There’s a pretty big debate in my field, that if you truly want to engage all the members of your community asking for long term volunteer commitment is not conducive. On the other hand, some orgs can get away with it because their volunteer positions come along with benefits that make them competitive – and forcing people to compete and commit means (theoretically) you get people who are actually invested.

  5. Allison*

    5 is definitely important. I’m not the type to spam employers with my completely unqualified resume (anymore), but I do remember feeling such a sense of urgency to apply to something ASAP that I’d often rush through customizing my materials so I could get my stuff in their inbox right away, knowing how quickly the positions I want are often filled. When you’re job hunting, slowing down can feel counter intuitive.

    1. Academic Adviser*

      I just wanted to agree on the importance of #5. Personally, I set a really high bar on what jobs I will even apply for – I research the organization, the department, the current staff, etc. before I even decide whether I want to apply. If I do apply, I spend at least 2-3 hours customizing my cover letter and resume. Obviously, this may not be necessary for everyone but it has worked really well for me. My last job search only required one application :). The one before that took about 8 applications, but yielded 4 interviews and an offer.

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        I do the same. When I’m looking, my rule for myself is that I have to do 3 job-search activities per day. Applying for a job counts. An interview counts. A phone screen counts. Taking someone out for coffee and to talk about jobs counts. Things like messing with the margins of my resume and fiddling with LinkedIn DO NOT COUNT.

        3 applications doesn’t sound like a lot, but each one is somewhat time-consuming by the time I find a posting, think about whether it sounds like a match, check what the commute would be like, read about the company, and write a customized cover letter. But I get a really good response rate, and I think they can tell that I’m not carpet-bombing every posting I see.

        1. Jam Wheel*

          I like this perspective a lot. The last few weeks I have been carpet bombing more than I normally would out of some sort of obligation maybe? Deep seated need to have SOMEONE notice me? Past job searches I would look until I found something I liked, tailor a great cover letter, have a few interviews, land a job. Hell, that even worked in mid 2010 coming off a short self employment stint. This time around I may have a lot more experience and a great name on my resume, but I am also in a new market and increasingly finding that I really don’t really want to do what I have been doing anymore, or at least not for a big corporate. So I end up applying to positions in industries I don’t really want to work in, just to feel like I am doing something.

          I think maybe there could be a number 6 – perform some soul searching. I’ve done some thinking about what would really get me excited about my next job, how that relates to my current skill set and positions I am applying for, what transferable skills I may have, what gaps I have and what I can do to address them, who to speak with to learn more about possible new positions. Out of this process I have found roles adjacent to where I was, that would require a slight pivot, that allow me to apply to vacancies where I can make a clear, compelling case with some level of passion behind it. That’s a lot nicer position to be in than just firing off a resume with a canned cover letter, hoping it’ll just “slip through” and I could convince myself later its a good idea!

          Alternatively I have also been developing a consulting product on the side and working on other projects to keep myself sharp, learn, and have something to talk about in an interview. Also helps keep the sanity after working in the job search mines!

  6. VictoriaHR*

    Thanks for this, I need to keep things in perspective. I’ve been unemployed for a couple of weeks now. I’m in the interview process (i.e. they’ve indicated interest and/or I’ve had at least one interview) for at least 7 different positions, I’m just playing the icky waiting game.

  7. Ali*

    I’m doing #2 right now (though interning, but it’s unpaid, so OK) on top of my full-time job. I had no experience in my internship area before getting the position, but I’m interning for a small but growing company so they were willing to take a chance on my related background. It’s going really well and I’m actually considering changing my path as a result.

    I did Alison’s resume review a few months back, but no results yet using the revamped version. I’ll agree with what someone said in an open thread a few weeks back…sometimes the job market just feels *too* saturated. I too have ended up in the trap of good materials, would be an asset to the company/industry but…there’s someone more experienced.

  8. Stephanie*

    Although I’ve been in a dry spell lately, I usually don’t have a problem getting interviews (most of which have been long-distance even). Like others, I keep running into another candidate being more experienced.

    I’m at a weird impasse with volunteering. I was/am doing it to have something current on my resume, but it’s starting to get expensive to do it (mostly the cost of gas). And perhaps this is because I’m in a more technical field, but I’ve had trouble finding anything substantial or relevant enough. Most relevant things I’ve found are STEM outreach, which most interviewers just shrug off when I mention it (“Oh. That’s nice.”). Still looking around to find something more meaty.

    1. Anx*

      It’s so much harder to volunteer in STEM than many other fields.

      I’m volunteering at a hospital right now, and have been for over 2 years. I am consistently told I will not be considered for certain admin and support staff roles because I ‘don’t want that.’ But I can’t volunteer with anything in the labs because I’m not certified (which I can totally understand).

      I wish I could do support work in the lab environments, but no volunteer position exists for that so there’s no way to do it.

    2. CC*

      Yeah, finding a volunteer job that’ll keep engineering skills up to date is … well, I won’t say impossible, but apart from a student-based organization like Engineers Without Borders, it’s not something I’ve seen.

      1. Stephanie*

        Yeah, not so much. I’d imagine this would be an issue in any technical area. I did just get involved with my local professional chapter of Engineers Without Borders. I’ve also done some volunteer work with robotics teams, which can get technical. I don’t know what relevant volunteer work you’d do if you were trying to keep your chemical engineering skills fresh.

  9. Dang*

    I’m temping in an admin assistant role. It’s not bad but I find it kind of us stimulating, does anyone have experience being hired within the organization they temped for in a different role?

  10. T*

    Regarding temping: this is what I have been doing as I look for work in my field. The problem is that I have spent more time not working than working. I think temping works better if you are looking to work long term in the same types of roles the staffing agency is hiring for. In my case, I am not interested in doing admin work long term, and anyone looking at my resume can figure this out. Many of the jobs I have been up for were temp to hire, and I am certain that in at least two cases I was passed over because they could tell that I would be out the door the once I find a job in my field.

    1. T*

      P.S. Some of the truly temporary jobs I’ve submitted my resume for haven’t panned out either, so their is still some competition when going through a staffing agency.

      1. Felicia*

        I’ve found that temp jobs are nearly as competitive in my field/area. I’m currently doing a 2 month temp contract that they apparently got 100 applications so I feel lucky. And it’s only the second temp assignment i’ve gotten in 2 years (the other was a while ago, and only 3 weeks). Most temp jobs still require like minimum 2 years experience, which is why i’m not getting any. I think it’s really hard to temp for entry level (at least here), so it’s probably not the best idea. Also I hate when people are like “why don’t you just temp?” as if i haven’t already tried and like it’s as easy as going in and saying “i want to temp now!” My advice for entry level people is try temping, but don’t expect to be any easier than getting any other job

        1. Stephanie*

          Thirding this. I know my experience isn’t universal, but I’ve found the temp roles to be just as competitive as the perm roles in my field and industry. In my area and region, temp jobs are usually the gateway to perm roles at a lot of the big companies, so competition can be pretty fierce. I would just look at temp roles as other job opportunities.

          1. Viola*

            Yes. I’ve sent my resume to pretty much every temp agency in town and get nothing. Not one single thing. Well, sometimes I get a call if they have a position that my resume actually fits. I obviously can do admin work and am willing to do admin work but they’d rather have someone either fresh out of school or someone who’d been a c level ea for a decade!

            1. Mander*

              I’ve done the rounds of all the temp agencies in my city multiple times over the past 4-5 years (part of that was the tail end of my PhD) and I have had absolutely nothing out of it. Almost all of them will not even talk to you if turn up in person or send a speculative CV (I’m in the UK, BTW), and will instead tell you to go away and apply for specific positions on their websites.

              No idea what they are really looking for, but clearly I am not it!

  11. Waiting Patiently*

    I’m underemployed and I work with whole lot of other underemployed people at my job. We are always sharing info about which district or program is hiring. Lots of good networking going on. Most people have master degrees and teaching certificates which neither is required to do the work. Im working with new and former teachers who are working as instructional assistants in an prek autism program run by a district. I’m just an assistant. I make half of what they make but I get all benefits except a few– I get sick days, paid holidays and medical and dental they don’t get any of that. I thought about going to work for the autism program because there is always a need but I don’t feel it would be enough plus their hours are limited to like 22 or something…. I said all that to say..
    I just want to get the heck out of dodge. We just had layoffs, which I’m sure I barely missed because my salary is only a small drop in the bucket. I already went through a reduction in hours this year, luckily I was able to get a part-time after school subbing job (in my building–so convenient) that paid almost twice my hourly rate. That helped a lot with the hour cuts. I’m just tired of being a sitting duck.

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