Whether upended by layoffs, buyouts or bankruptcies, millions of unemployed Americans are anxiously trying to find a new, permanent paycheck.

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They’re pounding the pavement. Combing the classifieds. Tapping away at their computer keyboards. Hitting up friends and family for referrals. And trying to fend off the gut-wrenching worries.

Whether upended by layoffs, buyouts or bankruptcies, millions of unemployed Americans are anxiously trying to find a new, permanent paycheck.

“In 20 years, I’ve never heard this much fear in people’s voices,” said Diane Miller, president of Sacramento, Calif.-based Wilcox Miller & Nelson, an executive-search and career-transition company.

Andrea Weiss, a career counselor in Davis, Calif., says the anxiety is spread across the economy. “I don’t think there’s any sector where people aren’t feeling nervous. Even people who have jobs are worried about their security and stability.”

And no wonder. Amid the relentless drumbeat of discouraging economic news, there’s the rising rate of unemployment.

Even holiday hiring this season is bleaker than ever.

Given all that, job hunting can be an especially dreary, dispiriting process. Just ask those who are out there.

It’s “a nightmare,” says Sara Myers Bisler, 49, a veteran financial-services manager, who got laid off from a student-lending job with Wachovia bank in September.

It’s the second time around for Bisler, who endured a similar pink slip last year from Washington Mutual.

“I went from being highly marketable with multiple job offers a few years ago,” said Bisler, “to now, when I can go days at a time without seeing any (jobs) in my field.”

Bisler, a mother of four, said she spends at least two hours a day hunting for jobs online, talking with hiring managers and “calling everyone I know.” With so many competing for jobs, “even landing an interview is a major victory.”

But take heart. Based on talks with career counselors and executive recruiters, here are some strategies for job-hunting success:

Get out there: Get out of your comfort zone. Find the organizations you’re interested in. See if there’s somebody who knows about that industry or the companies. Ask to meet for coffee to talk about their work. These interviews may not lead to a job, but they give you insights and keep your name in front of prospective companies. It’s a challenge to stay optimistic and motivated, so set goals, such as saying: “By next week I’ll contact three companies I’m interested in working for.”

— From Patty Bechtold, Bechtold LifeWork Strategies, Sacramento

Refine your pitch: “Get clarity about what you want. Develop a 15-second ‘elevator pitch’ to use in line at (the grocery store), at a (sports) game or dropping your kids off at school. Avoid the general: ‘I’m looking for a job and pretty much open to anything; let me know if you hear of something.’ Instead, be specific: ‘Do you know someone with insight into job opportunities for a staff accountant … with ABC or XYZ Co. or the green-technology industry? I’m an accountant with six years’ experience, a great track record and am really interested in those companies and that industry.’ By providing a short, concise message, extended with enthusiasm and confidence, your chances of having someone refer you to a potential opportunity … dramatically increase. You have to give people the ability to help you.”

— Curt Cetraro, co-founder, ConnectPoint Search Group, Sacramento

For executives: “For executive-level positions, use resources like the Directory of Executive Recruiters (the so-called ‘Red Book’) to connect with a search firm. E-mail a résumé and cover letter that states the position you want, your compensation expectations and geographic preferences. If you’ve been an operations manager for a department store, a restaurant and a car dealership, for instance, e-mail your résumé to search firms specializing in those industries.

“That’s just one branch in your (job-hunting) tree. At the executive level, 80 percent of jobs are found through networking. It’s hard to do over an extended period of time. Be diligent. Use business community events. Monitor your health; exercise; don’t overdo the alcohol. Be around positive people, not ‘energy vampires’ … who suck enthusiasm out of you.

“It’s all overwhelming, so try to instill some perspective that it’s not personal. It’s a point in history where the velocity of (economic) changes probably won’t slow down for a while.”

— Diane Miller, Wilcox Miller & Nelson, Sacramento

Get up, get out: “Don’t go into a cocoon; remain visible. Attend professional events, conferences, career fairs. If you’re still working, invest in ‘career self-reliance’: Volunteer for projects, take on assignments that build skills or leadership roles, sign up for community college or … extension certificate programs. Do mock interviews with a professional or someone who knows you well. Job hunting is an emotional roller coaster, so do the stress-reducing activities that work for you — yoga, playing basketball, going with friends to the movies.”

Above all, recognize that finding work won’t happen overnight, “even if you’re doing everything right.”

— Andrea Weiss, career counselor, Davis, Calif.

Do your research: On an encouraging note, consider Shay Villere, an out-of-work database administrator, who has spent the last several months sleuthing Internet job sites and meeting with recruiters. With no results.

On the advice of Helen Scully, owner of Scully Career Associates in Roseville, Calif., he identified his region’s top 25 software companies and started sending résumé e-mails to each company’s president, outlining his experience and the tech job he desires.

Villere didn’t ask for a job; he requested a meeting. So far, one company has responded.

“It worked,” says the 32-year-old Arden Park, Calif., resident. “They called back two days later and brought me in for an interview. I got to talk with the CEO right off the bat.”

Although the Davis firm didn’t have an immediate opening, it put him in a candidate pool for the next vacancy. Villere said he’s pumped up by the results. “If I hone this technique, I’ll eventually get what I want.”