How to find a job in a recession: Smart strategies for experienced professionals and new grads

Whether you’ve lost your job or are a recent graduate entering the workforce, these tips from career experts can help you pursue career opportunities during a recession.

Millions of Americans were left wondering how to find a job in a recession after the U.S. officially entered one in early 2020. And as unemployment goes up, so too does the competition for open positions.

“The difference today is that instead of competing with 200 to 400 other people applying for the same job, you’re probably competing with 4,000 other people applying for the same job,” Lisa Lewis, a career transition coach, says.

If you’re in this position, you’re likely asking: How can I find a job in a recession, whether as a recent grad or experienced professional?

A woman sitting on her living room floor, drinking coffee and looking at her laptop computer.

Lewis believes every working person should have the mindset of a “career changer,” or someone who is preparing for a shift in their career path. This proactive, agile frame of mind can be especially helpful when you’re wondering how to find a job in a recession.

How to find a new job in a recession after being let go

First, give yourself a chance to grieve

If you’re among the many who have lost a job, the immediate question is, now what? Before you start surfing job boards, it’s okay to take some time for yourself.

“If you’ve been laid off from a sector that is going to take a long time to completely recover, I think the first thing to do is give yourself permission to grieve, because that is a huge disappointment,” Lewis says.

Because you don’t want to bring any sadness or negative emotions into interviews with hiring managers, she adds that allowing yourself room to process this unexpected change is both healthy and a way to set your job search up for success.

Reflect on your core values

If you have to transition to a new industry, Lewis recommends reflecting on how your core values were fulfilled by your most recent job. Take, for example, the hospitality industry, which was particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, which triggered a recession.

“If you’ve been laid off from a sector that is going to take a long time to completely recover, I think the first thing to do is give yourself permission to grieve, because that is a huge disappointment.”

Lisa Lewis, career transition coach

“A lot of people who go into hospitality love creating beautiful experiences for people,” Lewis says. “They love making them feel taken care of. They love making people feel heard, and like they’ve been accommodated to. And those core values can oftentimes translate into a lot of other types of roles and sectors.”

For a person who loved working in a restaurant and is looking to change careers in a recession, she says, it could be worth exploring a career transition into a hands-on customer service role, such as in wealth management or enterprise software implementation. Another idea could be event planning, which is still surviving as many companies pivot to virtual events during the pandemic.

Focus on a specific employer or opportunity

Once you’ve processed this tough situation and reflected on what matters most to you in your profession, communication coach and career expert Dorie Clark says it’s time to get laser-focused.

If you want to work at a specific company, she recommends that you use social networks to connect online with the people who work there, learn about the culture and find out exactly what they look for in new hires. “When you come in for an interview, you are going to be a standout because they’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, this person looks like they fit here already. They know this place so well.’”

A man wearing headphones and sitting at his desk, in an online video meeting.

With that in mind, when changing careers in a recession, go for quality and not quantity as you apply for new jobs. The goal is to shine as a candidate when it matters.

“You hear a lot of people complain and get very demoralized,” Clark says, “because they say, ‘I’ve sent out a hundred resumes in the past three months, and I haven’t even gotten one callback.’ But the truth is, in them saying that, you understand why they’re not getting callbacks.”

Craft a narrative that highlights your strengths

When pursuing new career opportunities during a recession, how can you stand out as a candidate in a crowded job market—especially when it wasn’t your decision to find a new line of work in the first place? If you took the time to identify career opportunities during a recession in new industries that resonate with your values, then your next step is to craft and refine your own narrative.

“I think the important thing is to tell a story about who you are as a prospective employee that really focuses on the reasons why you’re running towards a new job and a new direction, that feels future-oriented and positive,” Lewis says.

Many people fall into the trap of pointing to external events, such as a recession or the pandemic, as the reason they are now changing careers in a recession, she says.

A woman sitting at home and using a sewing machine.

“That particular story is not motivating, inspiring or exciting for hiring managers,” Lewis says. “They don’t want the person who’s changing careers because the pandemic made them.” Rather, she says, “They want the person who’s changing careers because they’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and actually this new direction better aligns with the kind of impact that they want to make with their work.”

Clark warns against relying on your resume alone to tell your story. The risk is that a potential employer will think you’re only capable of doing the work you’ve done in the past—instead of tapping into your future potential.

With that in mind, Clark implores you to tell your unique candidate story at every possible touchpoint as you search for career opportunities during a recession, and this extends well beyond cover letters and resumes. Importantly, it includes the specific language you use when you tell your friends and family what you’re looking for in your next role and why you’re motivated and excited to find that opportunity. It also comprises the About section on your social media profiles, as well as the portfolios and posts you share with your online networks. Finally, when you secure a job interview, your story needs to be tight, polished and compelling as you verbally communicate it to the hiring manager.

“Make sure that you’re really connecting the dots with people and helping them understand and setting the terms of the narrative arc, so that they’re not just making it up on their own,” Clark says.

Lewis encourages job seekers who are wrestling with how to find a job in a recession to think of their career transition as an asset, not a liability.

“In a lot of ways, when you are pivoting into something new, the previous experiences that you have and the knowledge and the relationships that you have acquired over time can be a unique asset,” Lewis says. “You’re bringing a fresh perspective and a different set of benchmarks to help a company improve or change their performance.”

How to find a job after college: Tips for recent graduates in a recession

Look on the bright side (And there is a bright side)

Stepping off the graduation stage and into the “real world” can feel daunting even in good economic times. But doing so without a job secured and during a recession? That can be downright terrifying. Yet Lewis encourages new graduates wondering how to find a job after college to stay positive.

“I think it’s really important for early-career folks not to get discouraged, because if you are entry-level, you are the most affordable type of hire that a company can make right now,” she says.

After new grads start their first job in a recession, Lewis says they often have the unique opportunity to prove themselves early in their careers by taking on assignments and responsibilities that might have otherwise gone to more senior employees.

Start doing the job before you get the job

When wondering how to find a job after college, insecurity can set in. Because recent college graduates are often trying to break into fields in which they have little to no experience, they can feel like they’re at a disadvantage when compared to more seasoned candidates. To alleviate these anxieties while improving the odds of finding a job after college, Clark recommends taking a proactive approach to building experience.

“It’s really important to not wait for permission or to feel like you need to be hired in order to start doing the job that you want to do,” she says.

The most visible examples of this career strategy are in the entertainment industry. Nobody knew some of today’s biggest stars when they uploaded their first videos online, but that is exactly how they got their break into show business. Don’t have a great voice or acting chops? Not a problem, Clark says. Doing the job before you have it can help you break into just about any field.

“For instance, if you decide that you want a job at a law firm to be a paralegal, you don’t have to wait and be hired in order to start learning about law,” she says. “You can actually reach out and start interviewing lawyers for a blog,” whether that’s one you write yourself or help manage for an established thought leader or organization.

“It’s really important to not wait for permission or to feel like you need to be hired in order to start doing the job that you want to do.”

Dorie Clark, communication coach and career expert

Show off your work

When dealing with how to find a job after college in a creative field like writing or design, you can start building your portfolio of work today. For service jobs like accounting or consulting, you can volunteer at a nonprofit organization and write up a case study that demonstrates the value you added.

These proof points of your expertise can be showcased on your personal website and your social media accounts, which you can almost always link to when applying for an open position.

“If you are able to demonstrate that [initiative] during the pandemic, that is a very powerful indication that you’re the kind of entrepreneurial thinker that companies would find quite valuable,” Clark says. “It helps demonstrate that you are not just waiting to be told what to do.”

A woman standing next to a work table with a pencil in her hand.

Keep your career goals on track, even in a recession

Determining how to find a job in a recession can be challenging, but it’s still possible to keep your career goals on track. If you keep these job-seeking tips in mind, you’ll be your most hirable self in any market.

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