How Long Can I Stay Unemployed?

Dear J.T. & Dale: I just got laid off. I’m actually glad. It’s been 15 years, and I’d like to take some time to focus on myself. I’ll be getting unemployment benefits, so why rush? I want to figure out how much time I can take off. My question is, How much time should I allow for finding a job? How long can I stay unemployed? – Alexa

J.T.: I get this kind of request several times a week from folks who want to use unemployment benefits as a sabbatical. I cringe each time, knowing that no one wants to hear the answer I have to give: If you delay a job search, the risk is that you’ll be unemployed for a very long time. Here’s why: An employee is like a house that’s for sale. If it sits on the market for too long, buyers assume that something is wrong. When you decide to take six to nine months off, employers start to wonder the same thing about you.

DALE: While the analogy to a house may seem like a stretch, let’s look at some numbers. If a company is going to hire a person for $40,000 a year, it’ll have to pay benefits and overhead, and the actual cost is more like $80,000 a year. If the company’s goal is to have employees who stay at least five years, that’s a $400,000 purchase decision, more than double the national median price of a house. So, wise hiring managers – the very people you most want to work for – are cautious when hiring – you could even say suspicious when hiring. If someone has been out of work for more than a few months, hiring managers can’t help but think: “I wonder what’s wrong? Why has everyone passed her over?”

J.T.: My experience with coaching job searchers suggests that you have about four months after a layoff before companies question why you can’t get hired. So, the time to start is now. I know that’s not the answer you want, but ask anyone who has been out of work for a year or more, and the idea of “taking time off to find myself” suddenly looks really silly as they watch their retirement savings dwindle, they lose their homes and, ultimately, end up in a job they are overqualified for.

DALE: Ouch. And while I can’t disagree, I can say that instead of taking a few months off to relax, you can organize a lively and adventuresome job search and create for yourself a pleasant break from your old work routine. Use the time to meet people, to reconnect with old colleagues and to add to your professional knowledge.

J.T.: It can be an enlivening break from your old routine, but never forget that you’re working at finding a great new job.

© 2012 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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