For some layoff victims, this tough economy has introduced a nasty scenario: the endless job hunt. Here's how to refresh your efforts.

When Barry Chalcroft got laid off from his six-figure job managing an IT operations center for Time Warner Telecom in Vancouver, Wash., he wasn't worried. After all, not long before, he'd had headhunters pestering him on a daily basis. Besides, it had never taken him more than three months to land a new position. But 12 months later, after sending out what he estimates as 1,500 resumes, Chalcroft is still looking. His connections can't help — they're out of work too. His wife, who was staying home to raise their five children, has had to take a job at Wal-Mart. "I feel like I'm at my wit's end at times," Chalcroft says. "I really don't know what to do."

Welcome to the era of the endless job search. In this brutal labor market, a growing number of layoff victims are encountering a frustrating scenario they never thought possible: The months just keep rolling by with no hint of work to be found. According to the Department of Labor, one out of five job hunters today — twice as many as two years ago-has been looking more than six months. And the average search for managers and executives, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, is now 3.8 months, the most since the firm started keeping track in 1986.

The torment of a drawn-out job hunt goes far beyond the lost pay. The longer you look, experts say, the more your job-hunting skills deteriorate. Many burned-out job seekers just keep recycling the same failed strategies. Others start to wear their anger and disappointment on their sleeve. "They get snippy with people who do have jobs and develop a negative persona," says Tory Johnson, CEO of Women for Hire, a New York-based organizer of recruiting events.

If your job hunt has dragged on too long, here's how to figure out what you're doing wrong and make a fresh start.

Stop your whining.
Understandably, people frustrated with a long job search often complain to anyone who'll listen. But in doing so, they risk sabotaging their own networking. "It's sad, but I get nervous about giving someone like that the name of a good contact of mine — and I'm not alone," says Johnson. She suggests reviewing e-mails you've sent out in recent months. If you've been sharing your misery with anyone other than close family and friends, knock it off.

Do some volunteer work.
This is a great way to reenergize. "It will remind you of the skills you have," says Medfield, Mass., career coach Suzanne Blake. She recalls one client fired from a marketing job who spent six months on a fruitless search. It wasn't until she volunteered with a local political campaign that she regained her confidence. "She got a lot of positive feedback and was able to remember that her talents were exemplary," says Blake. "Soon after, she found a great job."

Refocus your search.
One reason job hunts drag on is that people instinctively seek positions like the one they lost. But when the economy's rotten, similar companies tend to follow similar patterns in their cutbacks. "Usually, all your counterparts are also laid off," says Bill Wolfe, VP of outplacement for The Callos Cos. in Pittsburgh. When Ken Ramoutar lost his job in mid-2001, the Pittsburgh marketing veteran spent two months targeting the sorts of employers he'd always worked for — large software firms. Problem was, those companies were all scaling back. But after chatting up local executives and venture capitalists, "I found there was a big population of smaller software companies that really could use the help of experienced execs," Ramoutar says. He wound up landing a job as chief marketing officer at one such firm.

The Blotter
Eye for an Eye
When Costco fired staffer Kimberly Cloutier for sporting an eyebrow ring, the West Springfield, Mass., woman promptly fired back with a $2 million lawsuit. Her basis? The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission had ruled that the termination constituted religious discrimination. Cloutier, it turns out, belongs to the Church of Body Modification, a 700-member nondenominational group that "teaches ownership over our own bodies."
Special Orders Don't Upset Them
A Pendleton, Ind., teenager filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a local Burger King after her female supervisor subjected her to a strip search-at the behest of a prank caller. The caller claimed to be a cop investigating a theft and ordered the supervisor to describe the girl's "tan lines." A more savvy boss at another Burger King got a similar call but hung up.

Rethink your Internet use.
A trap some job seekers fall into is squandering their time pursuing online postings. Because hundreds, even thousands, of fellow desperadoes target the same openings, the strategy has a low success rate, and that can be demoralizing. Instead of crawling the Internet job boards all day, use the Web to research companies and identify decision makers at companies you'd like to work for. Limit your time online to evenings and weekends; this will force you to spend your days contacting these people for informational interviews and networking with others to learn about less advertised openings.

Working Solutions
Question: I'm a small-business owner. Can my company set up a college savings plan so I can contribute to the education of my employees' children?
— J.R.B., via e-mail

Answer: While most states' 529 plans do permit corporations to set up accounts, it's rare for the employer to be the one contributing. Most of the time, a company sets it up strictly as a service for employees who want their contributions deducted from their paychecks. As a retention tool, a college savings plan doesn't make much sense. If the employee leaves (or, for that matter, if the child decides not to go to college), you can't change the beneficiary to another employee's child. A better bet may be to set up a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt scholarship or tuition-assistance fund.
— Sarah Breckenridge

Get fresh feedback.
To get input on their resume and cover letter, job seekers often turn to the same family members or close friends over and over. That's a problem. "People who are familiar with you and your job hunt usually can't see the forest for the trees," says Johnson. "But someone with a fresh perspective often raises issues you hadn't thought of." One good source: hiring managers who have interviewed you and have taken a pass. Just be sure you "don't act like you're calling to confront them," advises Lori Dernavich, a career coach based in Needham, Mass.

Mask your desperation.
While the bad economy has taken some of the stigma out of being unemployed, a jobless stint of more than six months can still raise questions with hiring managers. If you're asked why you've been out of work so long, spin your response so it sounds as if you're the one being selective: "I want to make sure I join a company where I really fit the culture and can make a significant contribution." And be prepared with ideas on how you can help the company. "Otherwise, you come across as desperate," says Dernavich. "As really needing the job rather than thinking of yourself as an asset."

Tools of the Trade
Weapon of Choice
When the wild needed taming, the Swiss Army Knife was the thing to have. But now the office is our domain, and our tools must evolve with us. From Brookstone comes the Office Multi Tool ($35; www.brookstone.com), a 5-inch, all-in-one gizmo that packs just what you need to navigate the paperwork jungle: stapler, staple remover, scissors, LED light and magnifying glass. And in case your work on the Jones account calls for more primitive tactics, there's a tape measure, two screwdrivers and a knife.
— Anne Kadet