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How to Mend Your Parachute

Like many things, the notion of career planning and job hunting has changed dramatically since September 11. Here, acclaimed author Richard Bolles offers five strategies for finding meaningful work in the face of an economic recession and a national crisis.

On June 2, 1976, a newspaper reporter named Don Bolles was assassinated in a Phoenix parking lot on his eighth wedding anniversary. The victim of a fatal car bomb, Bolles was targeted by a local mobster unhappy with the reporter’s investigative stories about fraud and corruption — articles that capsized political careers, derailed businesses, and targeted organized crime in Arizona. Bolles, 47, was a husband, a father, and the brother of acclaimed career advisor, Richard N. Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers.

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On September 11, when Richard Bolles learned that four commercial airliners had slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside, he immediately sympathized with the families and friends of people killed in those terrorist attacks. “I know that grief,” he says. “You live in the land of might-have-been and wish-I-had.” After witnessing the horror, Bolles also knew his job would never be the same again. He was right.

Like many things, the notion of career planning and job hunting has changed dramatically since September 11. No longer is changing your career about finding a new employer; it’s about redefining your priorities and ambitions, Bolles says. It’s about coming to terms with what matters most.

“September 11 exposed the repairs we must make in our lives,” Bolles says. “So often we take our loved ones for granted as we become enraptured in our work and our jobs. September 11 helped us see that now is the time to appreciate our loved ones, to listen closely to them, and to begin important conversations with them about work, family, and balance. Don’t wait for a cataclysm; do it now.”

This fall, Bolles updated his Web site with advice about job hunting after September 11. Though his guidance borrows heavily from the totally rewritten 2002 edition of Parachute, Bolles concedes that the market has shifted significantly since he finished writing the new book earlier this year. Here, he offers five fresh tips for finding meaningful work in the face of an economic recession and a national crisis.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Despite aggressive advertising campaigns launched by sites like Monster and Hot Jobs, Bolles says only 4% of job seekers actually land a position through the Web. What Color Is Your Parachute 2002 also reports that 74% of job hunters experience some degree of failure while trying to apply for a position online and 40% are ultimately unable to apply due to broken links, poor navigation, or stale information. Some 45% of those who do submit a résumé and cover letter in response to an online job posting never hear back from the hiring company at all, he says.

“The statistics are depressing, but necessary,” Bolles says. “If you know the cold, hard facts, you will adapt your job hunt accordingly. But if you only pursue online job leads because you think the Web works for everyone, you risk losing your self-esteem, which is the worst thing that can happen to an applicant during the job hunt.”

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Try Plan B

When the standard job hunt doesn’t work anymore, Bolles suggests a weekend homework assignment: Perform a career inventory. First, ask yourself whether you most enjoy working with people, data, or things. Then begin listing the skills, interests, and working conditions that would comprise your ideal job. As you analyze your unique career criteria, Bolles says a compass will emerge to guide your job search in the most logical, fruitful direction.

“This is a method that requires more time and more effort, which is why people avoid it,” he says. “By engaging in this introspective exercise, you’re already a step ahead of the competition. You’ve identified a set of transferable skills that will help you find a role outside of your current industry or job description.”

Be Picky

Once you determine the elements that constitute your dream job, begin pinpointing industries and companies that fit your parameters, Bolles says. Don’t settle for less than your ideal position. And don’t allow discouraging economic news to temper your fire.

“Job hunters typically run around like chickens with their heads cut off,” Bolles says. “They try to prove they can do 1,014 different jobs without realizing that employers steer clear of scattered applicants. Employers want someone who is really good at one thing. The trick is knowing what that one thing is, but you can’t be everything to everyone.”

Jump the Gun

The traditional job hunter sniffs out a fresh trail of help-wanted postings. The successful job hunter doesn’t wait for a vacancy sign to appear in the window. She identifies the industries most attractive to her, researches top companies in those fields, and then finds contacts at those companies. Regardless of whether the companies are officially hiring, Bolles says the successful job hunter arranges to meet with executives for information interviews — a sure-fire job-hunting strategy offered in the first edition of Parachute.

“If you start out with you, and not the job market, you won’t have to contort yourself to fit a job description,” Bolles says. “A worker who is in a job, a place, and a field that he enjoys will always outperform a worker who settled. The key is attitude and enthusiasm.”

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In addition, Bolles says, the best jobs are seldom advertised to the outside world. Often, companies begin looking for replacements internally or find themselves too inundated with work to post a classified ad immediately. If you walk into a company during the hiatus period after an employee’s departure, you may be the only applicant for a job that hardly anyone knows about, he says.

Don’t Back Down

Congratulations, you’ve landed a sweet job with a fast company. Now, where else can this position take you? Which employers are seeking your skills? Who will hire you next? When will you move on?

Especially since September 11, workers everywhere are learning that nothing is certain anymore. Jobs are liquidated, staffs are reduced, and companies change hands with little or no warning. The talent market is in upheaval.

“I know one guy who turned on the radio during his commute to work and found out he lost his job,” Bolles says. “The day you start your present job is the day you should launch your hunt for the next gig. Don’t wait until you get fired to think about your job hunt. Everyone who holds a job now should be asking about the next step.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the senior Web editor for Fast Company. Learn more about Richard Bolles on the Web.

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