Some candidates get ahead by not working

Sending your resume or reel around but not getting any nibbles? Laid off during the recession and feeling down about today’s hiring prospects?

Everyone knows show business is cyclical, and those who’ve faced bust times before have found that sometimes the wisest thing to do when jobs are scarce is to wait it out until things pick up again.

In England, the idea of a “gap year” exists, where students squeeze in 12 months of genuine life experience between studies or before entering the work force. But being unemployed doesn’t necessarily mean being idle, and there are ways to take a break between gigs without losing your place in line.

“This is not the time to take a vacation,” insists Kevin Hand, whose company Hand and Associates provides executive training and career counseling. “If you take a year off with nothing to show for it right now, you’re insane. It’s too hard to recover.”

Staying as productive as possible, even if it’s in a classroom, on a computer or over lunch, is critical to keeping an edge on competing applicants, career coaches say.

“We have to define work differently now. Work is work, whether it’s learning or networking or full time,” asserts Carleen MacKay, who is an employment expert and author. “Planned time off for learning purposes is actually an advantage.”

Folks looking to brush up on their skills have myriad options, such as university extension classes, which offer everything from acting and animation to television writing and visual effects. For example, at UCLA Extension in the Hollywood area, students can learn about nearly every aspect of the business, according to Pascale Halm, director of the extension’s entertainment studies and performing arts division.

“Nobody enjoys economic hardship, but we are seeing many people from inside and outside the entertainment industry who are using this recession as a chance to learn new skills, network and position themselves for future opportunities,” Halm says.

Most courses at UCLA Extension and comparable schools meet for six to 12 weeks and cost a few hundred dollars. Longer, part-time certificate programs take up to two years to finish.

Union members can also find classes and resources for free through their guilds’ headquarters. Lori Jane Coleman, American Cinema Editors internship director, encourages fellow editors who aren’t on a show or film crew to take a Final Cut Pro class, which is offered free through the guild.

“It’s the latest, cheapest technology, and I wouldn’t want anyone to miss a job because they don’t know it,” she says. “All recent film school grads already know Final Cut Pro, so it’s important to master that skill.”

If attending an evening class or applying to a business or film school program isn’t appealing, then get face time every day with your industry contacts.

“In Hollywood, it’s like musical chairs: There’s always someone left out,” Coleman says. The most successful editors aren’t just the most technically gifted, she adds, but the ones who know how to network.

“It’s time to go into hyper-drive with the socializing. Keep your name and your face alive in everyone’s minds, because oftentimes the referral for the next job is the last person an employer just saw.”

Networking is a sales job, MacKay stresses. “Seventy percent of jobs in any industry are filled through networking,” she says.

Hand credits social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn with getting his clients in touch with potential employers.

“It’s important to be computer savvy, because there are incredible networking tools on the Internet. I’ve had four of my executives land jobs in the last four months through LinkedIn,” he says.

After three to six months, that networking should pay off with at least a consulting or other freelance project. If not, Hand suggests hiring a personal career coach or creating a personal board of advisers.

The one thing you should absolutely not do, he says, is burn bridges with former co-workers, whether supervisors or subordinates.

“It makes no common sense to leave in a bad way — especially when it comes to executives,” he says. “All those ‘little people’ will one day be executives themselves, and they’re not going to be there for you.”

Those little people, Coleman says, include film students. He encourages out-of-work editors to cut students’ work.

“Today’s film students are tomorrow’s award-winning directors, and they could remember you.”

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