(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: What is going on in HR departments at big companies these days? The last time I looked for a job, which admittedly was quite a while ago, if you submitted a resume and cover letter to HR, you at least got some kind of response (even if it was a form letter saying "no thanks").
That seems to have changed. I've been looking for work for almost a year now, since I lost my job as a brand manager at a mid-sized company, and it is incredibly frustrating. I've sent dozens of carefully crafted resumes to HR people, usually in response to specific ads on job boards or company websites, and it's like sending things into a black hole. I just hear nothing.
Are your other readers having this experience? How can I get these gatekeepers to respond to me, or if that's asking too much, how do I get past them? -- Just Joan
Dear J.J.: No doubt about it, what you're experiencing is awful. What's even worse (and, alas, quite common) is to have gotten as far as the interview stage, and had one meeting or even several that went swimmingly, so that your hopes are as high as can be, and then to hear...nothing.
It's hard to believe that people in a position to tell you yea or nay about a job are so insanely busy that they really don't have 30 seconds to dash off an e-mail telling you whether you've got a shot at it or not -- and small comfort to reflect that, if they're this rude to candidates, you wouldn't want to work there anyway.
But in defense of HR people, consider: They are overwhelmed. For one thing, at many companies, HR departments have suffered cutbacks right along with every other function: The average HR staff now numbers 9.2 employees, down from 13 in 2007, according to a recent poll by the Society for Human Resource Management. Any time headcount takes a 30% hit, you know the survivors are struggling.
Moreover, it's not that HR folks are unsympathetic to your plight. Plenty of them know firsthand what it's like to be unemployed for a painfully long time. SHRM did another survey, this time of HR professionals who'd been out of work (85% due to layoffs) in 2009, and found that of those who recently found a new job, 47% had been job hunting for six to 12 months, and another 27% had been looking for longer than a year. Among those who were still unemployed when SHRM conducted its poll, only 18% expected to find work within six months; 43% thought they'd have to search for a year or more.
The really disheartening part: Among those hired in 2009 after a lengthy search, almost half (49%) said they liked their new jobs less than the ones they had lost. The survey didn't ask why, but my guess would be overwork. HR departments are inundated with resumes, sometimes getting hundreds or even thousands for every available opening. Your carefully crafted resumes are buried somewhere in an ever-mounting pile, and HR staffers are hard-pressed to keep up, let alone give each candidate the kind of individual consideration that he or she deserves.
So how do you get around this? Vicki Barnett, head of a Denver career coaching firm called Make It Happen, says that, instead of sending resumes to HR, you should send them -- either on paper, electronically, or both -- to an executive at the company one or two levels above the hiring manager for the position you want. Granted, that person is likely to be extremely busy too, so he or she will delegate you to the person one or two steps down -- i.e. the one doing the actual hiring.
"Resumes travel down the food chain more easily than up," Barnett says. If the boss forwards your resume, a hiring manager is likely to give it a more thorough read than the 10 seconds HR may spend on it. After you've sent your resume, wait a few days, then follow up with a phone call to find out who has it and ask if you can schedule a meeting.
Obviously, there are still no guarantees you'll get hired, but bypassing HR gives you one big advantage, Barnett says: "Hiring managers have their 'wish lists,' but HR doesn't know what's on them, because what hiring managers really hope to find is often a combination of ineffable qualities that can be hard to spell out on paper."
HR people are usually just trying to match up keywords between your resume and the job description, Barnett adds -- and if you only have 12 out of the 15 keywords, you won't make it past that hurdle. Hiring managers, on the other hand, can look at a resume and read between the lines: "Even if your keywords don't match up precisely, you may have other experience or qualifications that would catch their eye."
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