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How to Get a Job

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It's brutal out there. But the people getting hired aren't necessarily the most connected - they're the most creative. From food diarists to Twitter stalkers to candidates tapping the "hidden" job market, here's what's working now.

(Fortune Magazine) — Rob Sparno recently did something that 12.5 million Americans would kill to do. He did something that has never been attempted by this many people at once in the 60 years the government has been keeping records. He did something that’s getting only more difficult with every day.

He got a job. A really good job. A ‘pay the mortgage and still be able to pay your kid’s private college tuition’ kind of job.

When Sparno, 55, a longtime salesman, lost his position at Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500), he knew the search wasn’t going to be easy. He had friends who were out of work and struggling to find jobs. He knew that getting back in the game would require every skill he’d spent his career honing. Methodical by nature, Sparno made a trip to Staples, where he bought a black hardcover lined notebook. He vowed to record every day what he did, whom he talked to, how he felt, how many miles he ran. He even wrote down what he ate.

To keep his spirits up (another must if you’re in the persuasion business), he organized a group of seven other executives – including a former COO and CFO – who also lived in his community of Princeton, N.J. They got together every few weeks on Saturday morning in the back corner of a local diner and shared tips, like what to do in a second-round interview and how to gather job leads. And by 9 a.m. each morning Sparno and another jobless friend would call each other and check: Okay, what are we going to do with this day?

Talkback: Tell your recession story

Rather than blast out resumes, Sparno drew up a list of about 15 former colleagues who were now in leadership positions – his prospect list, in sales parlance. Then he sat down to write them e-mails. One note was to someone he hadn’t talked to in years, an old colleague from Netscape who now worked at Salesforce.com. In his e-mail Sparno wrote that he was looking for the “next new thing.” Minutes later he got a text message from his contact’s BlackBerry with two words: “Call me.”

As every salesperson knows, getting prospective buyers to meet with you is just the first step. The key is figuring out, What do they want? What keeps them up at night? Sparno read every story he could find on Salesforce.com (CRM). He watched YouTube videos of CEO Marc Benioff being interviewed by reporters, all the while taking notes. (“It was just like cramming for an exam.”) To organize his thoughts, he assembled a five-slide PowerPoint presentation going through exactly how he would approach the job and what he would accomplish in the first 30, 60, and 90 days.

By the time he went for the final interview – his seventh – he had his pitch down perfectly. Halfway through the meeting, Sparno and the manager started discussing how to target a client Sparno had worked with before. The manager went up to the whiteboard to throw out some ideas, and Sparno leaped up to join him, until the two were standing shoulder to shoulder, markers in hand, batting strategies back and forth.

Two-and-a-half months after leaving Oracle, Sparno got the job. All it took was a scheduled daily pep talk, a fraternity of out-of-work neighbors, voluminous research, seven rounds of interviews, a bout of inspiration at the whiteboard, and, of course, a food diary.

You may have heard – it’s rough out there. Not only is the unemployment rate the highest it’s been in 25 years, but the situation is deteriorating fast. This is not your run-of-the-mill recessionary job market. If unemployment hits 10% next year, as some economists expect, the country will have seen the fastest rise in joblessness since the 1930s. What’s more, as you’ve no doubt noticed from talking to neighbors and friends, the phenomenon is hitting a broad swath of the population: The unemployment rate of college graduates, 4.1%, is the highest on record since the government started keeping track in 1992. At this pace, economists at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimate that in 2010 fully one-third of the U.S. population will at some point in the year be unemployed, or working part-time when they’d rather be full-time.

It’s enough to drive the average job seeker to distraction. Like just about every unemployed twentysomething, Jamie Varon, 23, had her heart set on working at Twitter. She had already applied for a position through the company’s website. And asked a contact at Google to put in a good word for her. And showed up at the company’s headquarters with a bag of cookies in an attempt to charm a recruiter into talking to her. But she still hadn’t landed an interview.

What Varon did next made her feel a little crazy. But then, it’s a crazy time to be looking for a job. She created a website called twittershouldhireme.com, including her resume, recommendations, and a blog tracking her quest. Within 24 hours the company contacted her. She had a lunch meeting set up at Twitter, and in the meantime got two job offers from tech companies that had noticed her site, which has even spawned imitators: googleshouldhireme.com and facebookshouldhireme.com.

Getting noticed is a big accomplishment: Many companies have so many applicants that they’re leery of advertising open positions. Just four hours after the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League posted a position for an assistant on Jobing.com, a manager called the site pleading for the ad to be taken down; the company had already received 180 resumes. UnitedHealthcare, for instance, asked Fortune not to disclose the number of jobs it has open. The spokesperson said he feared an onslaught of job seekers, citing a recent incident he had heard about where 700 people applied for a janitorial position at an Ohio school.

Still, hiring has not stalled entirely. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 2.5 million people were laid off in January, 4.4 million new workers were hired (bet that’s a number you missed amid all the depressing news). But with the ratio of job seekers to openings at 3.9, vs. 1.7 at the start of the recession, the tactics that might have worked when the economy stalled in 1991 or 2001 simply won’t cut it anymore. Just finding openings is a project in and of itself. “When you’re in a recession and employers are all going stealth, you’re probably looking at 90% or more”.

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