We're a country where careers are often part of our identity, and you don't suddenly yank that part of a person out without ripping up the rest.
So, in the midst of a miserable economy, when layoffs have become so common they're met with shrugs rather than shock, the questions on the minds of a sorrowful number of Americans are: How do I pick up the pieces and put them back together? How do I weather the loss of a job and, more important, find a new one when the number of openings is but a sliver of the number of candidates?
I've received many questions along these lines, questions for which there is no singular answer. Individual situations differ. Some fields are growing; some are waning. Where you live might play a role. And there are times when finding a job comes down to nothing more than good fortune.
But after casting lines out to an array of people who specialize in helping others find jobs and talking to folks who got laid off and recently made it back into the workforce, I can at least offer some general advice.
The one constant is: You cannot give up hope.
Easy for me to say, sitting behind a computer with a paycheck coming Friday. People out of work for two years with barely an interview to show for their search will shake their heads, and I understand that.
But whether you want to hear it or not, it's a mantra that a job hunter must maintain. Because if you surrender hope, you're done.
Rocki-Lee DeWitt, a management professor at the University of Vermont, said: "The point I usually make and say is, 'Think about it if you were in business. Do you want to be hiring people who are down in the mouth and weary and so forth?' The pragmatic aspect of it is you need a positive attitude, you need to have perseverance, no matter how hard it is. That's not being Pollyanna. It's just saying that you're responsible for your employability."
J.T. O'Donnell, chief executive of CareerHMO.com, said it's up to each individual to steel themselves, no matter how deep the pile of rejection letters.
"Look at it this way," she said. "You sit and blow off company after company every day, without a blink of an eye. You ignore their ads or don't buy their products and feel no remorse for that. Do those companies get mad at you? No. It was their job to attract your attention, and they failed. They keep trying."
Celina Green, 45, of Los Angeles, lost her job in human resources about a year and a half ago. She got some contract work and was on and off unemployment.
"It's OK during the first six months," she said. "But after you've exhausted all your savings and your 401(k), reality sets in, and you can barely afford your rent or car payment or medical coverage."
She struggled to keep from becoming bitter while dealing with unresponsive recruiters and indecisive hiring managers.
"I kind of dived into some volunteer work," Green said. "I needed to heal. When those kinds of things happen, you start having self-doubt. What's wrong with me? Why aren't they bending over backward to hire me? The volunteer work helped me realize there are people who are in even more dire situations. I stopped thinking about myself and stopped being self-consumed."
Just recently, Green got a full-time HR job. One of the steps she took involved creating a "bucket list" of the top companies she wanted to work for, writing out small pieces describing why she wanted to work for them and what she felt she could contribute to each.
"Taking those pieces helped me develop a very focused cover letter," Green said.
O'Donnell said Green's approach is a part of the "marketing plan" that every job seeker needs to form.
"Just sending out 1,000 resumes isn't going to get you anywhere," O'Donnell said. "If you're just spraying and praying, you're not building any sort of a job search. The 'automated job search' concept is not working, and people are using an antiquated approach to networking."
Her point is that networking is not just setting up a LinkedIn account and going to job fairs. It's trying to get at people inside companies, not asking them for a job but asking them to meet for coffee or informational interviews.
"My best example is a young woman I worked with who wanted to work for ESPN," O'Donnell said. "She was an anthropology major. No connection to sports marketing. She wound up going through a series of five informational interviews at ESPN. Each one she'd ask, 'Who else should I talk to in the organization about this? Who could I learn more from?' She winds up getting a phone call from a hiring manager at ESPN, he interviews her and then they hire her because so many other people met her and liked her."
Bentley Patterson, 52, lives in northern Colorado and just started a job as a project manager with a Microsoft consulting services group. He hadn't had a paycheck since February 2010.
The job came about, he said, because he kept his head up and networked fearlessly with people he knows, from close friends to mere acquaintances: "What worked for me was going back and touching base with people I had worked with in the past, either clients or co-workers, as far back as I remember, just calling and saying, 'Hey, hi, I'm in this situation. Can you help me?' You can't put hints out. You have to come right out and say it.
"I think people are shy, and they're also embarrassed about their situation. Most people you talk to who you might ask for help, they understand what's going on out there. And, in general, people like to help people, but you have to be pretty direct about asking for that help."
A post-layoff job search is not just about livelihood, it's about reassembling the portion of you that was blown apart. I can't offer a magic solution for that. Nobody can.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who learned a thing or two about rough economic times during the Great Depression, said, "When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on."
At the end of the day, what other choice is there?
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