How to Land Your Dream Job
Believe it or not, the latest data suggests the job market's about to get a whole lot friendlier. Hate your gig? Here are some timely strategies for finding a better one.
By Paul Kaihla

(Business 2.0) – Wouldn't you really rather be doing something else for a living? Be honest. We might tell our bosses that we love our work. We'll even tell ourselves—sometimes we have to just to get psyched up for the grind. But deep down, the vast majority of us know there's something better out there. Something more rewarding, financially or otherwise. Even if you're among the lucky ones who like their work, ask yourself a question: Is this your dream job? And if the answer is no, the next question should be this: What are you going to do about it?

Even posing such queries in these anxious times might seem ludicrous. Surveys report that up to 80 percent of American workers aren't satisfied with their jobs. Yet there's a strong inertial pull holding people in place. The economic recovery seems fitful at best, and when it comes to jobs, it's been the most impotent rebound in history. For the 8 million out-of-work Americans, any job right now would be a dream job. Between outsourcing, Iraq, predictions of a looming real estate collapse—if you have a job, even one that stinks, there can be an understandable urge to hold your nose and hang on.

Which is a shame, really. Because there are indeed dream jobs out there these days, and people do figure out ways to land them. Within easier reach are a growing number of jobs that are simply upgrades—well-paying, stimulating work that may not be your labor of love but can get you on higher ground while you continue the search for workplace bliss. And for a host of little-understood reasons, we're approaching a rather good time for trading up in the job market.

Despite all the gloomy news, corporate profits at U.S. companies are more than 20 percent higher than they were at this point in 2003. That's one of the strongest rates of profit growth since the 1980s. Up to now, managers have been squeezing more hours out of existing employees rather than hiring new ones—another reason for hating your job. But statistics suggest that tactic has reached its blood-from-a-stone end point, and many economists predict a building wave of new job creation that will start in 2005 and roll on for many years.

There are many factors behind that belief, but a fundamental one lies in the distinction between an expansion driven by corporate investment, which cratered in 2001, and one driven by consumer spending, which has propped up the economy since then. The dollars that companies spend on buildings, machinery, computers, software—the things that put people to work—add up to only about 10 percent of the gross domestic product but generate as much as two-thirds of each point of total economic growth. Consumer spending creates jobs at Wal-Mart. Corporate spending creates them at IBM.

And now corporate spending is going gangbusters again throughout many industries, rising 10.5 percent to a projected $1.2 trillion for 2004. The CEO Confidence Survey, a leading indicator of business investment and quality job growth compiled by the Conference Board, is registering scores above 70—the highest level since 1992, which marked the beginning of the longest and strongest economic expansion in the post-World War II era. A recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has itself hired 5,500 new workers over the past year, found that more than three-quarters of the CEOs at the nation's 364 fastest-growing companies plan to add workers during the next 12 months.

At the same time, productivity growth is fading, falling from 9 percent a year ago to about 2 percent today. That means bosses aren't able to wring as much new output from their current workers. They'll need more to grow sales. They'll be looking for people with skills, education, and entrepreneurial zeal—and will have no choice but to pay well for them. "Wages for those kinds of people will rise at rates we've never seen before over the next couple of years," says Richard Florida, a professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of The Rise of the Creative Class. "These will be jobs with a view."

The effect is already coming into focus. Even with sputtering job growth, the unemployment rate has fallen almost a point over the past year and is expected to flirt with 5 percent next year. The last time that happened was in 1997, a moment when the dynamics of the labor market utterly and violently reversed to the disadvantage of employers. That tight labor market was presaged by so-called spot shortages—a spike in demand for a specific occupation in a specific place. From 1995 to 1996, for instance, wages for software architects rose 20 percent in places like Silicon Valley and Boston.

Similar spot shortages are popping up again now. In Atlanta, salaries for network systems analysts have risen 15 percent this year. In Washington, D.C., and Seattle, defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing have thousands of high-salary IT positions they can't fill despite offering significant wage premiums. In New Jersey and Southern California, accountants are almost as hot as tech workers were in the dotcom days; companies are paying headhunters just to set up interviews, on top of the usual payment when a prospect is actually hired.

The shortages, says economist Phil Hopkins of forecasting firm Global Insight, will spread to other cities and occupations, generating wider and wider circles of opportunity for better work—and, for some, dream jobs. What follows is a guide to slipping the bonds of bad work, illustrated with real-life stories of people who have landed enviable jobs. Take heart from their tales. Chase the dream. Just think how good it would feel to tell your boss that, actually, you don't love your job. And you've just accepted a far better one.

DEFINE THE DREAM

To begin the quest, ponder this: What in the world is my dream job? Obvious though the question is, it can be tough to answer. For one thing, after a certain point, as life's compromises pile up, a lot of people simply stop believing in the perfect job. John Krumboltz, a professor of education and psychology at Stanford University, estimates that only 2 percent of workers older than 30 have the jobs they dreamed of having when they were teenagers. Krumboltz believes that career idealism gets pounded out of people partly because, early on, we fixate on jobs that are less a dream than a hallucination. "Most of us are not going to become rock stars or play shortstop for the Yankees," Krumboltz argues. "To put all your stock in getting this one dream job is an exercise in futility for most people."

Krumboltz suggests a better approach: Experiment with different dreams. Richard Hagberg, a psychologist and Silicon Valley management consultant, offers similar advice. "Think of the things you like to do, not necessarily things you're good at," he says. "Then see if anyone is getting paid to do them." For instance, are you a home video nut? Maybe you should start a company that makes corporate training and marketing videos. One of Hagberg's clients did just that. Hagberg had urged the man to hang out with people in the videography industry, and he clicked. The acid test for whether you've found a potential dream job, Hagberg says, is, "Do you get along with the people in this field? Are you like these people?"

MAKE YOUR BOSS'S RESUME YOUR OWN

Some of the most frustrated people in America are workers in the so-called creative class, the term that Florida uses to describe executives, technologists, marketers, and others who make up the top 30 percent of the workforce. Many dream of running their own shop but, at least at some point in their careers, find themselves blocked by a heavy hitter higher up the ladder who isn't going anywhere.

Beth Axelrod, chief strategist for the 70,000-member workforce at WPP Group, the advertising conglomerate that owns the likes of J. Walter Thompson, wants to make the dreams of those stymied creative types come true. Axelrod is among a growing group of headhunters who are trying to raid high-ranking talent whose career paths are cut off at rival companies. In Axelrod's case, she targets the No. 2 or No. 3 person responsible for hit ad campaigns and offers them a chance to run a piece of business on their own at WPP. In human resources circles, that's known as the "pull-up hire," and it can be an express elevator to better work. In May, for instance, J. Walter Thompson recruited Mike Mazza to be its chief creative director for West Coast operations. He'd been a No. 2 creative officer at San Francisco's Publicis & Hal Riney, the agency that created Sprint's ads. "He had done great work, but he was clearly blocked," says Seth Wolk, head of HR at Thompson. He keeps files on the bench strength at all his competitors, looking for frustrated stars to cherry-pick.

So how do you get in the file? One useful maneuver is to get some of the reflected glory from the very boss whose success has stalled your advance. If your boss has been celebrated for a tough turnaround, make clear to people in your field what your contributions to that feat were—which projects were your ideas, which programs you managed, how you cleaned up your own part of the business. It helps to be able to document it with e-mail trails, memos, and testimonials from clients and customers. Another trick: Seek out headhunters who specialize in your field and get on their radar screens. Industry gossip is the currency of their trade, and the people who do the actual hiring rely heavily on their informal intelligence network.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

If you spend any time in Silicon Valley, you still hear a lot of carping about the ravaged work environment. There are an estimated 10,000 IT workers in the San Francisco Bay Area who are still pounding the pavement for full-time work. But here's a little secret: One reason they can't find good jobs is that they won't move to where the jobs are.

Hey, it's the Bay Area; it's a nice place to be. But there are gaping job openings for them if they'd just move on. Jeffrey Shuman, head of hiring for Northrop Grumman's 22,000-strong IT division, is filling 4,300 openings this year. He has found it almost impossible to recruit in the Bay Area—even for a 350-mile shift to Southern California, where Northrop is based. "We've had candidates turn down jobs that pay six figures and a full relocation package with moving expenses," Shuman laments. "They have self-imposed boundaries. They don't want to leave. They don't want to commute."

At the moment, Silicon Valley is an exception to another rule for job upgrading. The Valley is the ultimate "industry cluster"—economists' term for an area where companies in the same general business congregate. Clusters typically have higher productivity and higher profits, and therefore higher wages. When times are good, a concentration of employers bids up wages. The Valley is still digging out from the bust, and thus isn't generating all the upside of a cluster in an improving economy. But it will again someday, and clusters in other areas are booming now—Los Angeles's aerospace and defense cluster being a prime example. In this economic expansion, the gap between the have-not cities and those that are bases for fast-growth industries will widen. So if you're a coder in Topeka, move to Raleigh-Durham. If you're a biochemist in St. Louis, move to Boston or San Diego. Says Tom Long of executive search firm Egon Zehnder, "You can stay within the industry where your skills are already in demand, but increase your labor mobility and future pay overnight."

TRADE INDUSTRIES

Sometimes the best move is to find similar work in an entirely different industry. Stuck in a feast-or-famine sector like financial services? Go get a similar job in an industry that's booming.

That's precisely what Aslam Chaudhry did. After years as an IT specialist at a number of large financial houses, including institutions like Cleveland's Key Bank, Chaudhry hopped to a Detroit-based ad firm during the boom. When business started to slow there, he considered taking a high-paying job at a utility, but instead chose to slide over to yet another sector. Recently he joined SAS, a $1.3 billion privately held power in the rebounding business software market.

Today Chaudhry, 45, leads a staff of 12 at SAS headquarters in North Carolina's Research Triangle. His team is developing software products for the banking industry. He says he expects to be making much more money than the utility offered him—more than he's ever made, in fact—within a year. He won't say how much, but we're talking serious six figures. "I'm a happy guy," he says. He may stay that way. SAS is in the sector that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will post the highest wage and employment growth over the next eight years. Utilities? Didn't even make the Top 20, lagging behind industries such as public transit and child-care services.

Now is a particularly good time for moving across industries the way Chaudhry did. As the labor market tightens, hiring criteria relax and doors open. Moving from a stagnant sector to a livelier one can pump up a paycheck 10 to 20 percent overnight, say BLS economists.

THINK BIG

During the bubble we all dreamed of being a top player at the next Microsoft. We would retire at 30 to sip piña coladas in the shade of coconut trees. That fantasy will still come true for some. But for those whose dream job includes a measure of certainty and security, it's useful to remember that startups and other small companies have an 80 percent failure rate. That's a powerful argument for chasing your dream at a larger company that offers growth opportunities internally.

As an exclusive Business 2.0 survey shows, Fortune 500 companies in a number of different industries have been on a hiring binge of late. (See "Who's Hiring Now," page 114.) Big companies typically provide better benefits and wider geographical opportunities. And this happens to be a great time to get on the management track in a giant corporation. That's where the baby boomers' impending retirement will be felt first, creating skills shortages in management, where workers are typically older. For that reason, forward-looking companies like WPP are aggressively adding younger workers to beef up their feeder pools of potential managers. Kelly Hopkins, a 27-year-old fine arts grad and self-taught tech support worker, sees herself rising to her firm's middle ranks in the next few years. She just took a job as an editorial assistant at Boston-based Pearson Education, a branch of the British publishing giant, after bouncing from one startup to another during the past four years. She turned down a better-paying offer from a small firm that was closer to her home. "You need to have a 401(k), and you need to have vertical mobility," she says. "They want you to go after promotions here."

GET CLEARANCE FOR TAKEOFF

Want to make yourself a red-hot employment prospect with just one addition to the resume? If you're in IT, get a job with a government contractor that requires a security clearance. Even if you initially have to make a lateral move or take a pay cut, gaining that clearance puts you at the heart of the hottest spot labor shortage in the world today. The war on terror and the increasing digitization of defense have left companies like Boeing, Lockheed, and Northrop with tens of thousands of openings for jobs that require security clearances. Having one virtually guarantees double-digit annual pay raises for the foreseeable future and could even make you the object of bidding wars.

Just ask Bob Dydo. The 60-year-old IT manager thought his career prospects were bleak when he was laid off by Nextel in 2001. "Given my age," he says, "I figured I was toast." After being out of work for a year, he swallowed his pride and took an entry-level job "pushing paper" at a government contractor. His boss was 27.

But as a condition of accepting the position, he restored a top security clearance that he'd held during a prior career in the Air Force. As a direct result, he began rising up the firm's ranks. He's now a boss earning in the high five figures. Not for long, though: He has recently received three offers from defense and intelligence contractors, one of which would double his salary to almost $200,000 a year. He expects to take one of the offers any day. "It doesn't matter what your expertise is," Dydo says. "If you have a clearance, you're a very valuable commodity."

So how do you get a security clearance? There's the military route, or you could join a government contractor that will sponsor you for a clearance. But there's another way: Find a government job that requires one—and there are a lot of them out there. It turns out that the biggest new source of jobs these days is Uncle Sam. The Defense Department alone has hired more than 100,000 civilians since August 2003; two-thirds got starting pay above the national average salary of about $36,000, and hundreds of the new hires are being paid in the six-figure range. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel, says the department will hire another 100,000 people over the next year, including roughly 20,000 IT workers.

Working for the government probably doesn't immediately spring to mind as a dream job for a lot of people. But you don't have to work there forever. One 23-year-old IT specialist with a high school education got his clearance working for the Defense Department. He recently was hired by General Dynamics for $35,000 a year—to work three days a week while he goes to college. It took more than six months for the government to transfer the man's clearance for civilian work. General Dynamics paid him for that entire period, even though he did no work for the company. "I guess they didn't want other people to snatch me," he says.

It doesn't get much better than getting paid to sit on the couch. He figures he'll be making six figures, easy, when he goes full-time. But the real reward, he says, is already coming. He's doing classified work that he says will help U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan stay alive. Dream job? "Better," he says. "A couple of years ago, I couldn't have dreamed I'd be doing something this important—and getting paid well to do it."