Jeff Halpern had changed jobs a half-dozen times since receiving his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1991, but the latest change was different.
His position at a start-up energy trading company disappeared in the wake of Enron's collapse, and it took almost seven months for him to land a new position as marketing manager of TheraSense, a company in Alameda, California, that develops products for people with diabetes.
While he was out of work, Halpern, 39, became increasingly aware of what he was missing: not just a regular salary, but also the networking opportunities and the experience and knowledge that people accrue in their jobs.
"It's very easy to allow your skills to stagnate and not stay up on what's going on in the world," said Halpern, who joined TheraSense in late April.
Corporate recruiters and career coaches agree. The so-called opportunity costs of unemployment are often hidden and are harder to quantify than lost salary or benefits. But they are nonetheless a burden that can have lasting effects on a career.
The longer people are out of work, it seems, the harder it can be to find employment. In August, 1.9 million Americans had been looking for work for 27 weeks or more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure accounts for about 22 percent of the unemployed and does not include 503,000 eligible workers whom government economists classify as "discouraged."
These are people who have lost their jobs but are not currently looking for work specifically because they believe that no jobs are available for them. And many recent college graduates have decided to ride out the tight job market by enrolling in graduate or law schools instead of looking for permanent employment, while others have chosen volunteer work.
Halpern, who has been diabetic for 10 years, decided that he wanted his next job to be in the area of diabetes care. He worked to keep his business skills fresh and to stay on top of medical research and trends.
He did volunteer work for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and helped a fund-raising event generate about four times as much money as it had in the past. He also attended a career-coaching seminar. And, by each Monday, he made sure that he had something on his calendar for every day of the week ahead.
"It was better than feeling sorry for myself, and during interviews it gave me something to talk about," Halpern said. "I was actually doing something with my time."
Fighting skills atrophy
Rebecca Zucker, a principal and co-founder of the career advisory firm Next Step Partners in San Francisco, ran the group sessions that Halpern attended. Using professional skills in volunteer work or community involvement keeps those skills fresh, she said, and bolsters confidence.
"The insider knowledge that's gained from being in the flow of things is linked to a person's confidence and sense of competence in that field," Zucker said. "Like compound interest, those experiences build on each other."
Experts say recent graduates of business and law schools have particular reason to put their skills to work, because another batch of graduates will be flooding the job market within a year.
"If a certain amount of time goes by, and you don't have things to put on your resume, and the year behind you catches up, you are caught in a squeeze play," said Carl Baier, a legal recruiter and managing director of the Palo Alto, California, office of Major, Hagen & Africa, a search firm.