With unemployment at a four-year high, job competition is stiff these days. But whether you’re unemployed or simply unhappy in your current position, it’s still possible to find new career opportunities.

Just ask Julie Cajigas, who received two job offers after job hunting for about two months (a short job search by most people’s standards). She started her new job in mid-July as associate director of development and marketing for a nonprofit organization in Cleveland.

“I think even though it’s a tough economy, if you’re good at what you do and you take the time to present yourself well, you’ll find a job,” she says.

Here are tips from Cajigas and others on landing the job you want even in a lean market.

1. Balance dream opportunities with open-mindedness

In an ideal job market, you would narrow your search to a couple of favorite companies and focus on applying for opportunities with them. But as Alexandra Levit, career expert and author of “Success for Hire,” points out, “people have to be a little more flexible” in this economy. Be willing to explore opportunities outside of your industry or with companies that aren’t name brands.  

Cajigas, who had been working corporate communications before she switched to a nonprofit, says she followed job boards like Monster.com and CareerBoard.com and “scanned each day’s jobs from start to finish, because sometimes it’s hard to anticipate what a position title will be.”

The job she recently accepted was advertised through her alma mater’s job board. 

“A lot of (career information is) offered for free to alumni,” she adds.

2. Polish your resume and cover letter

You want your resume and cover letter to present you in the best possible light. Cajigas recommends showing your materials to a friend for proofreading before you send them to the company.

“It’s kind of like a take-home test,” she says. “Why would you fail a take-home test?”

Levit encourages job-seekers to rewrite their resume with the job description in mind.

“Make sure you’re clearly addressing those issues in your resume,” she stresses. “(That) probably means tweaking it for each opportunity that comes along. If you’re applying for jobs that aren’t in your industry, I suggest developing a functional-based resume. List your experience by skills — project management, sales, marketing, budgeting — so they’ll be able to easily see how your experience translates (to the new industry).”

3. Network your way in

Jason Alba, CEO of job search Web site JibberJobber.com, recommends using LinkedIn to find employees at the company where you’d like to apply.

“Let’s say I want to work at American Express,” he explains. “I would do a search for American Express on LinkedIn and see who on my network is somehow connected to the company.”

Rather than asking for a job right away, Alba recommends that you present yourself as a professional who is researching opportunities at that company.

“A professional is not a begging, needy job seeker,” he emphasizes. “Let’s say I find five open positions at American Express. That gives me something to talk to (the current employee) about.

“I can ask about those positions and find out how long they’ve been open, what the department is like, what issues they might have and more. Better yet, if you can find openings that are not advertised, you won’t be competing with hundreds of other job applicants.”

Only after you’ve developed a rapport with the person should you ask them to review your resume and cover letter.

“That might happen in the first call, or it might happen a few calls or e-mails later,” Alba says. “If I can tell (the person) isn’t going to have the time or interest in helping, I won’t ask him. I’m hoping my conversation will help me get good information about the position or department or players or issues, and if he has clout with HR or the hiring manager, perhaps he can put in a good word for me or do an introduction.”

4. Do your research before the interview

Before the interview, you should gather as much information about the company as you can. Read any press releases, media coverage, annual reports and whatever other information about the company and industry you can get your hands on. You should also find out as much as you can about the people you’re interviewing with.

“There’s nothing wrong with asking the HR person or recruiter who you’ll be interviewing with,” says Levit. “Try to Google (them beforehand).”

She adds that finding out what type of interview you’re having (a panel interview, one-on-one interview, behavioral interview, test and so on) will help you feel more prepared.

5. Dress for success

Wearing the right outfit will help you feel cool and confident. But Levit cautions job-seekers against wearing something too cool or comfortable.

“Even if the company is business casual, be business professional,” she says. “I would say even if people in the company say ‘everyone wears jeans,’ don’t wear jeans (to your interview). I think that it’s too risky.”

Levit also warns against bright colors or flashy jewelry and neckties when you’re interviewing at a conservative company. She adds that ladies should “watch the heel height. It’s better to look a little shorter than be constantly tripping.”

6. Calm nerves by remembering what you offer

Earlier this spring, after five or six months of job-hunting, Jonny Dover made the jump from working the night shift at a local newspaper to editing a medical journal in Little Rock, Ark.

Dover says the key to staying positive during a job search and interviews is to remind yourself of what you bring to the table.

“I made a list of my bigger accomplishments and made sure I was able to work them in casually,” he explains.

Also, remember that while your potential employer is evaluating you, you should be evaluating them, too.

“I had one job interview where the guy showed up late,” Dover says. “Then his boss came in and interrupted him, then he had me jump through all these hoops and this silly test. I realized, this guy isn’t getting any respect from his boss. If I work here, I’m going to be waiting around and won’t get any respect either. It’s a good idea not to leave one evil for another.”

7. Watch body language and small talk

“Everybody has some kind of quirky body message going on,” says Alba. “They use the hands too much or it’s the way they sat.”

He suggests that you have somebody watch you during a mock interview and give feedback or videotape yourself and watch it later.

Levit’s advice is to “always make eye contact. Even if you’re nervous, don’t show desperation in your voice or mannerisms. Take a few notes, but pay attention to what’s going on. People love to talk about themselves, so (try to) get the interviewer to talk.”

A note about small talk: It’s great to feel comfortable with your interviewers, but whatever you do, don’t badmouth your previous employers.

“HR or recruiter might seem like a friendly ear,” Levit says, “but they are not your friends. They are your interviewer. Always spin in it a positive light. Say ‘I’m looking to do X, Y, Z,’ not that you hated your boss.”

8. Ask thoughtful questions

Even if your interviewer did a thorough job of outlining the position and company, your lack of questions might be perceived as a lack of interest. But don’t ask about benefits or pay schedules in an initial interview, because that could come off as presumptuous or overly eager.

Alba recommends asking “questions that show you’ve done your homework about the company and you’re going to bring something professional to the role.”

For instance, “What are your expectations in this role?” According to Alba, another good question is, “‘When can I follow-up with you?'” so you can set that expectation. If they’re gonna close it out in two days, that’s something you’ll need to know.”

9. Follow-up appropriately

The decision-making timeline will dictate whether e-mail or snail mail is more appropriate for a thank you. But either way, be sure to follow-up to personally thank each of your interviewers for their time and reiterate your interest in the position.

“Most people fall down on the follow-up,” says Alba. “They wait around to hear something back. It has to be professional, not needy, whiny or urgent.”

Dover knew someone who “ended up contacting (a prospective employer) every two days for the next two weeks.” Suffice to say, she did not get the job she wanted.

“When you’re over-eager, it’s like dating,” he says. “You have to stand your ground (because) you don’t want to smack of kissing up.”

Rather than waiting by the phone or computer, move onto the next interview or job application. It will happen if it’s meant to be. If not, there are plenty more fish (and jobs) in the sea.

10. Negotiate your salary

Remember, you don’t have to settle for whatever job or compensation package you’re offered.

“You have to at least ask (for more money),” says Levit. “(Once you accept a position), you may have lost the opportunity to ask for at least a year. It’s better to get that money (now). Even in this market, definitely ask. Things are negotiable.”

Dover managed to substantially increase his salary from his previous job by switching industries and demonstrating his value to the new company.

“They were looking for someone to do an overhaul (of their Web site),” he explains. “I can take care of it myself, so I saved the company around $6,000” as opposed to outsourcing it.  

He also received a raise, which was negotiated three months ago when he started, at the beginning of this month. Despite the economy, Dover says “this is really the best negotiation I’ve done.”

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