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Friday December 11, 2009

Lessons of Extreme Job-Hunting

Joann S. Lublin

Joblessness transformed Joshua Persky, James A. Williamson III and Peggy Greco into experts about extreme job-hunting tactics.

Mr. Persky, an investment banker, handed out his résumé while wearing a sandwich board that read, "Experienced M.I.T. Grad for Hire." Mr. Williamson, fresh out of business school, taped his résumé inside the cab he began driving when he couldn't land a marketing post. Ms. Greco printed a T-shirt touting her availability for private-duty nursing, then wore it during bicycle rides around wealthy neighborhoods.

The unorthodox gambits failed these job seekers—but taught them plenty about finding work, and could provide a playbook for countless unemployed Americans. Mr. Persky learned to become a multi-faceted entrepreneur. Mr. Williamson discovered why personal networks matter. Ms. Greco recognized the importance of targeted marketing.

Amid the still-high jobless rate, more people are devising offbeat ways to attract employers' attention. And given the length of the current downturn, some career experts don't blame job hunters for trying almost anything. Applicants shouldn't fear "standing out in promoting themselves because the tried and true isn't working during this recession," says Marilyn Machlowitz, a New York executive recruiter.

But creative techniques succeed only if they "demonstrate the unique skills or abilities that you would be able to bring," says Christina Williams, a Dallas executive coach.

Here's a look at lessons the trio gleaned from their experiments with extreme job hunting:


Mr. Persky lost his job as an outside contractor at Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin, a New York investment bank, in December 2007. He felt so bullish about his prospects that he initially didn't pursue unemployment insurance.

By June 2008, however, he remained jobless. His wife decided she and their children would relocate to her parents' Omaha, Neb., home, after being forced to relinquish their luxurious Manhattan apartment because the couple couldn't afford to renew the lease.

The separation "was very difficult," recalls the nearly 50-year-old Mr. Persky, a slender man with thinning grey hair.

Since office-building security measures were tightened after Sept. 11, Mr. Persky couldn't make the rounds of potential employers in Manhattan uninvited, and interviews grew scarce following Bear Stearns's collapse. Desperate, Mr. Persky made his hand-lettered cardboard sign and buttonholed lunchtime pedestrians blocks from his old Park Avenue office. He did fear being embarrassed if he ran into former colleagues, but he also knew "there were a lot of investment banks and hedge funds in that area."

Peggy Greco, a nurse, rode around on her bike with her Web site address and phone number on a T-shirt.

Mr. Persky launched a blog to handle his deluge of email and calls from around the world. A recruiter he knows found the blog so well-written that she recommended him to Weiser LLP. The accounting and consulting concern needed a senior valuation manager with strong writing skills. He joined in December and was laid off five months later.

But while his sandwich-board stunt helped generate another corporate gig, the latest layoff offered him a chance to reinvent himself—"to follow my true passions—writing and helping others," he says.

A book he wrote about his extreme job hunting has drawn interest from publishers. He pens career columns for a financial-services Web site, gives speeches and advises several small firms about business development. Multiple streams of income represent "the new popular paradigm," he says.


Mr. Williamson majored in marketing at La Salle University's business school in Philadelphia. Following his 2008 graduation, he looked for work in New York for four months.

"I couldn't get my foot in the door" due to inexperience, remembers Mr. Williamson, a North Carolina native with a thin mustache. He obtained a taxi driver license last October, and soon attached his résumé behind the cab's front seat.

The strategy "was a last resort," Mr. Williamson says. Several passengers requested his résumé. No job leads resulted, however.

The 26-year-old M.B.A. was driving 60 hours a week this spring when a longtime family friend introduced him to an accounting client employed by MetLife Inc. Mr. Williamson says he got an interview there because that staffer knew the hiring manager. In June, the insurer offered him a financial-services representative's spot once he passes three exams, which would give him the credentials to sell life insurance and other financial products.

Captive audience: James A. Williamson III received several requests for his résumé after he taped it behind the front seat of his cab.

Mr. Williamson now considers personal contacts crucial during a job search—especially in a highly anonymous city like New York. It's easier to network "in the South because people are more genuine," he says.


Like Mr. Williamson, Ms. Greco faced tough times after getting her degree. An unusual résumé prepared by the new R.N. persuaded a rehabilitation facility in Commack, N.Y., to hire her in 1995. The sky-blue document contained photos of her performing physically demanding tasks like kayaking. She believed the offbeat document would show she was physically fit, creative and "fun loving." But since 2000, she has been a private-duty nurse and household manager—mainly assisting wealthy families.

When an elderly Pennsylvania client died last November, Ms. Greco returned jobless to her home in Hobe Sound, Fla. She devised a Web site that includes anonymous testimonials about how well she cared for a sick individual or family member.

With its Web address and her phone number hand-printed with fabric paint on both sides of a T-shirt, she rode her bike past nearby hospitals and affluent homes. The ebullient, 53-year-old nurse figured the gambit demonstrated her sense of humor and her creative ability to help patients heal.

Media coverage triggered various offers of sales positions—but no private nursing gigs. In May, the family of her 2008 client chose Ms. Greco to care for another Pennsylvania relative, marking her third stint for that family.

The experience revived Ms. Greco's appreciation of references in finding clients. Ex-employers have firsthand knowledge about her skills, honesty and work ethic, she notes. Her current assignment ends later this month because the client has recovered.

Once back in Florida, she'll call numerous prior clients for fresh job leads. After all, they represent "the best marketing I have," she concludes.

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