Out of work 6 months. Now what?

If you've been unemployed for half a year in this market, should you just take any job you're offered? Rewrite your resume? Enjoy the break?

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I got laid off from a senior management job in marketing last September, just as the worst of this recession was getting underway, so I'm now coming up on six months' unemployment. As a hiring manager for many years (I'm 47), I always looked askance at candidates who had been out of work this long, so now I'm worried that prospective employers will do the same to me.

I've been called for a couple of interviews, but neither job seemed right for me. Am I being too picky? Should I take just any job, if I get another chance, simply to avoid having such a big hole in my work history? Also, should I rewrite my resume? Currently it's chronological, but maybe a functional one -- emphasizing types of experience rather than when I did what -- would serve me better now. Please help. -Sleepless in San Francisco

Dear Sleepless: Granted, half a year can seem like an eternity when you're on pins and needles, but chin up.

"In this market, six months is nothing," says Nancy Keene, director of the Dallas office of executive recruiters Stanton Chase. "This is unprecedented. In the dot-com implosion, for example, lots of managers got laid off -- but many other industries were still strong, so there was someplace for those people to go." Not this time. "You have to take a long-term view and expect that it may take you a full year to land the job you want," says Keene.

A couple of new surveys back her up. Executives can now be unemployed nine months before it even begins to hurt their marketability, according to a poll of hiring managers at 1,000 big U.S. companies by Robert Half Management Resources. And the average senior-management job hunt now takes even longer than that, according to a survey of 5,060 executives and 476 headhunters for the 2009 Executive Job Market Intelligence Report from ExecuNet. In fact, 10.1 months is how long most senior managers have to job hunt these days, the poll found.

Moreover, you were smart to turn down two opportunities that didn't seem right for you, Keene believes. "The worst response to this situation is jumping into the wrong job. That leads to a series of short hops, which spells career derailment," she says. "Look for consulting projects instead. As a senior manager, two years of consulting looks much better on your resume than two jobs where you only stayed a year, or less."

She adds: "You need to do a dual marketing campaign for yourself: One where you're seeking your next full-time job, and the other in search of appropriate consulting work to keep your resume filled up, get new experience, and add new people to your network."

Wendy Enelow, a longtime author, trainer, and career coach (www.wendyenelow.com), agrees. "Not long ago, putting 'consultant' on your resume screamed 'couldn't find a job'," she says. "That stigma is gone now. If you're an expert at something, it's perfectly acceptable to sell that expertise on an interim basis." (See the March 16 column, "Be a Manager and a Temp?")

And don't change your resume from a chronological to a functional one, advises Enelow. "For people who have been out of work for a very long time - for instance, moms who took 10 or 15 years off to raise their families and now want to get back into the workforce -- a functional resume makes sense," she says. "But for you, out of work just six months? It's a mistake. It makes it look as if you have something to hide."

"Be 100% honest and just tell interviewers you were laid off last fall and are still looking for the right opportunity," she adds. There's nothing wrong with taking the time to explore all your options in depth, especially if you're also sharpening your skills and building your network with short-term consulting gigs, maybe even lending a hand to a nonprofit in your community.

"The same people who sit on corporate boards are on nonprofit boards," notes Nancy Keene. These are good people to be visible to."

As a 47-year-old senior manager who presumably has been toiling away nonstop for a quarter of a century or so, Enelow says, you should feel free to mention to prospective employers that you've used some of these past six months "to slow down and smell the roses" -- spending more time with your family, brushing up on a foreign language, taking photography classes, or whatever else you've been doing to recharge and re-energize yourself for the next phase of your career.

"A long job hunt can be demoralizing," she says. "But if you go into an interview feeling and acting like a victim of the economy, it will sink you. You need to find ways to keep your spirits up and maintain a positive, forward-looking energy."

In other words, try to have some fun. If that sounds like a waste of time, consider Ben Wallace, age 40, who two weeks ago started his new job as chief operating officer of Penneco, a Pennsylvania oil and gas exploration company, after being out of work since last June. Wallace says he spent those nine months doing what he calls "quality networking," which led to consulting assignments that eventually landed him his current position.

"As soon as I was free and clear of my old employer, I started calling senior managers at other companies in the industry and asking them out to lunch," he says. His companions would start talking about gaps in their current talent pool, which Wallace would then offer to fill on a temporary basis.

Between consulting projects, he says, he enjoyed life. "I took my 9-year-old son to Boy Scout camp for a whole week and left my BlackBerry at home, which is something I never, ever would have done when I was working full-time," Wallace says. He adds: "Everybody who has been working very hard for a long time has neglected some part of their personal life and at some point thinks, 'Gee, wouldn't it be great to take a 6-month sabbatical, spend more time with my family, go to the gym every day and get back in shape...' So if you're job hunting, in a sense this is your sabbatical. Make the most of it!"

The advantage of not obsessing over your career 24 hours a day, Wallace says, is that "you will feel great, which will boost your self-confidence -- and that will help your job search." Worth a try, no?

Readers, what do you say? Have you been out of work for six months or longer? What are you doing to cope? How long can someone be unemployed in this market without it being seen as a black mark against their candidacy? Can changing resume styles really help cover an employment gap? Tell us what you think on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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