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Yes, being unemployed for too long during Covid-19 can hurt you, says career expert. Here's what to do about it

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Kanthita Sorncharoenchuwong | Twenty20

If you've been unemployed for more than six months, your job search is going to be extra challenging.

As a career coach and former recruiter, I've spent the past 15 years studying how employers evaluate people who were let go from their jobs.

Through research and conversations with several hiring managers, I've found that the stigma of being unemployed does exist — more than most people think — even amidst a pandemic.

Here's how one anonymous hiring manager I recently spoke to put it: "Millions of people lost their jobs this year, but millions of others kept their jobs and worked even harder, taking on new responsibilities as their companies pushed forward with reduced staff. It's unfortunate, but those people are often viewed as more desirable."

One 2018 experiment of 50 participants even found that HR professionals were more likely to rate employed candidates significantly higher on both confidence and hirability.

While not all employers adopt this point of view, there is still a lot of work to be done. Recruiters need to recognize the structural factors contributing to high unemployment rates and correct their biases against people who happen to be unemployed.

In the meantime, if you've been unemployed for more than six months, here are two things you can do to improve your situation:

1. Take ownership and have a unique story to tell.

Even if getting laid off wasn't your fault, the worst thing you can do is shrug your shoulders and say, "It was out of my control."

Ask yourself: Did you take advantage of your time unemployed to build upon your skills? Did you take on side hustles or a part-time job? Did you tap into your professional network? And most important of all: How hard did you try?

These reflections are important because hiring managers will wonder how much effort you put into finding work and making yourself valuable to your next employer.

Even if you put finding work on the backburner for a few months, it's okay to be honest about that, too. You could say, "This year has been an eye-opening experience for me. I had to deal with some personal Covid-related issues during the first few months of being unemployed. But I eventually prioritized my professional life by doing [X, Y, Z]..."

Remember, employers don't want to hire victims. They want superheroes who get knocked down but find a way to climb back to the top.

Having a good response to why you've been jobless for so long is key. Saying that it's because of the pandemic won't be a good answer forever. After a few months, you'll need to be able to articulate a unique story that will make you stand out and shows how resilient you are.

2. Be strategic about your job search.

One of the biggest reasons job seekers find themselves unemployed for a long period of time is that they don't have an organized strategy.

Applying online to every open job doesn't work! When you "spray and pray," chances are that you won't even make it past applicant tracking systems (ATS).

The most effective way to search for jobs is to put together a list of 10 to 20 companies that you want to work for, and then use your network to connect with people who have worked — or are currently working —there, or someone who knows people connected to the company.

Don't be shy about cold emails. These are tough times and the people in your network will be more than happy to help you out and make introductions.

J.T. O'Donnell is the founder and CEO of Work It Daily, an online platform dedicated to helping people solve their biggest career problems. She has more than 15 years of experience in hiring, recruiting and career coaching. For career tips, follow her on TikTok @jtodonnell.

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