With the jobless rate about as low as it ever gets, unemployed workers might wonder what’s wrong with them.
The economy is humming along, with the national and Seattle metro area unemployment rates both under 4 percent — well below what many economists describe as “full employment.” But ebullient news reports about job growth offer little comfort to local job seekers who may find themselves searching for months or even years to find suitable, lasting employment.
Of course, any unemployment is unacceptable if you’re the one looking for a job. But job hunting can be especially frustrating when the economy is growing rapidly, and media reports are filled with stories about low unemployment.
Just eight years ago, when the economy was emerging from a deep recession, the Seattle area unemployment rate was over 10 percent, and job hunters knew they were far from alone in their misery. Now, with the jobless rate about as low as it ever gets, unemployed workers might wonder what’s wrong with them.
The answer is, probably nothing.
“I know exactly what you’re talking about — the unemployment rate is low, why can’t I find work?” says Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department. Yet even with the Seattle metro unemployment rate at 3.8 percent, its lowest level in a decade, she points out that at least 64,000 people in the region are officially unemployed.
And that doesn’t even count the thousands of people who have dropped out of the labor force, perhaps to raise a family, go back to school, or just because they have given up looking for work.
In fact, while the national unemployment rate has fallen over the past year, the local unemployment rate has edged a bit higher, from 3.7 percent a year ago. Yes, the local economy has added thousands of jobs, but the labor force has grown by nearly 50,000 people as new residents pour into the Puget Sound region.
“The Seattle area job market has been one of the strongest in the country, and that has been attracting a lot of people,” says Vance-Sherman. “So you do end up having a situation where you have more people you’re competing with.”
Andrea Cole, a career coach who specializes in helping midcareer people find work in Seattle’s high-tech sector, says another reason people often have trouble finding work is that “the hiring process is broken.”
“I think it’s too dependent on automation, which strips a person’s character and personality from what a potential employer can see,” Cole says.
She notes that many employers, especially large ones, rely heavily on automated applicant tracking systems that filter out applications based on keywords extracted from résumés and cover letters. Those same systems increase competition by making it easy for job seekers anywhere to apply, sometimes with just a single click on LinkedIn or another job aggregator site.
Cole also sees ageism as a factor affecting many job seekers, especially those without specialized technical skills. “I think it’s real,” she says. “If they’re over a certain age — and 40 is ‘old’ — they fight an uphill battle. It just takes them longer to get a new job.”
Cole and other career experts offer several tips to improve the odds of finding a job quickly:
Customize your résumé. While you may not need a different résumé for every position, make sure you emphasize the experience — and keywords — that match up with the job requirements. The same goes for cover letters: They should include some of the same keywords included in the job description. (See this recent story on how to outsmart the résumé-filtering bots.)
Practice telling stories about yourself. Cole and other coaches work with clients to develop stories about their accomplishments to help give them confidence in interviews and win over hiring managers. But don’t tell just any stories. “Identify the stories that illustrate for the employers what they’re looking for,” Cole says.
Don’t fake it. “Don’t try to play-act or anything else,” Cole says. “Because if you resonate with them and they hire you, you’ll probably be happy there.”