5 Steps for Surviving the Job Search Doldrums

By Katherine Walsh

The period of time between Thanksgiving and the New Year is notoriously slow for job seekers. While some things speed up--perhaps your heart rate when trying to find a parking space at the mall--others, like lining up that interview for your dream security job, come to a screeching halt. During this month, companies are advertising fewer jobs, and employers aren’t conducting as many interviews to fill positions. It’s not just your imagination.

Many employers don’t post jobs at the end of the year because they don’t have the budget for a new hire, says Jeff Combs, practice lead of IT risk recruiting for executive recruitment firm Alta Associates. “If they are posting,” he says, “it’s because they want to get a pipeline going into the new year, when they have a new budget“--but they still may be slow to respond to candidates who answer their job ads. Combs says that out of every 20 clients with job orders for a recruiter to fill, typically only four or five of them are serious about actually hiring someone between now and the end of the year.

Even companies that are serious about the hiring process may find it next to impossible to get the ball rolling on the interview process. “With the stress, [holiday] parties, and people not wanting to lose vacation time, it’s difficult to get everyone mentally lined up for the interview process,” Combs says. Nevertheless, security job seekers can still take advantage of the hiring lull by using the time to regroup. Here are some tips on how to do that, between bites of pumpkin pie.

1. Reevaluate yourself.

Take the time to plan your search and be analytical about it, Combs says. “You’re marketing yourself when you’re looking for a new job, so take the time to brand yourself.” To do that, you need to understand what makes you better than the other candidates applying for the same job. “Think about what your differentiators are, and how you are going to define and articulate them,” he says.

You should also give some serious thought as to what you really want to do. Want to work for a larger company? Move from the technical realm into security management? “Ask yourself what your motivations are for wanting to make the move,” Combs says. “Do you want to do the same thing for another company, or do you want more responsibility?” If you think about these things prior to the application process, then you’re starting from solid ground.

2. Do your homework.

Research different companies in your region and identify ones that you think may be able to use your skills, says Evan Scott, president of executive search firm Evan Scott Group International. “Search company websites and see what kinds of jobs they are advertising for,” he says. If they seem to be a fit, get some contacts and send out some initial e-mails introducing yourself. Or, if possible, take some time to visit certain companies.

“It’s a good opportunity to canvas all the companies that might support your professional interests within a commuting distance,” Combs says.

3. Party, er, network.

With all the parties going on, networking is often easier to do this time of year, Scott says. “It’s a great opportunity to meet new recruiters and start to plant some seeds for meetings in January.”  If you are looking for positions at the CSO/CISO level, Scott suggests reaching out to retainer-based search firms, which tend to handle high-level job postings. (A recruiter who works on retainer has an exclusive contract to fill a job. For the inside skinny, read “The Moving Game,” written by a CSO who’s been there, done that.)  “Recognize they may not have a fit for you now, but set up a meeting anyway; it’s a good time for them to know who you are.”

Combs says it’s also a good time to reach out to existing contacts. “Let headhunters you know and trust know you’re ready to start looking,” he says. “Touch base with friends, past colleagues, current colleagues or organizations you may be a member of, like the Information Systems Security Association or (ISC)2, and see if there are any networking meetings you can take advantage of.”

Once you do make the connection, whether new or old, make sure you set a timeline for following up, Combs says. It’s especially important to do this time of year, when people are increasingly busy outside of work. “You don’t want to pester people, but set a date to talk again and be disciplined about it.”

Combs and Scott both predict that social networking sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace will continue to grow in popularity, and effectively change the job search process. Scott says he hasn’t seen such techniques used very much at the senior levels, but that they may be more effective for middle management and junior-level positions. Regardless of your experience level, it’s not a bad idea to put yourself on a network like LinkedIn.

However, it’s still good to exercise caution when using those tools, says Combs. “Steer toward ones that are more professionally focused,” he says. “Use them in a way that is constructive toward your professional goals and maintain a high level of professionalism through them.”

4. Sharpen your resume.

These quiet weeks are also a good time to hunker down with your resume. You could start by spending some time visiting job list aggregators like SimplyHired and Monster. Although the listings may be sparse, it’s helpful to know what is out there before you work on your resume. “That way, they are writing it with the goal of solving the problems the job descriptions are asking to be solved,” Combs says, and listing their accomplishments and skills in a way that satisfies what the market wants. Writing it with that context in mind can improve your chances of scoring an interview. “It all goes back to figuring out what your differentiators are and branding yourself,” Combs says. “Then make sure your resume reflects that.”

Recruiters can also help, Scott says. “If you can develop a relationship with a recruiter, ask them for their advice,” he says. “It’s a good idea to ask them for samples of resumes they like.” (For advice from CSO, see “Sharpen Up Your Resume,” in which two experts weigh in on how a fictional CSO candidate could improve his prospects.)

5. Be patient.

During this time of year, don’t take it personally if things aren’t happening quickly, Combs says. Recognize that it’s natural for things to slow down during this season; that’s not a reflection of your worth as an employee or job skills. Instead, he says, “take advantage of the fact that it’s slower, and do the ‘housecleaning’ that most people don’t get to do when things are moving quickly. And try to enjoy the holiday season.”

Associate Staff Writer Katherine Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@cxo.com.

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