Finding a job can take longer and be more competitive in times of lower unemployment.

The unemployment rate was announced today at 4.2 percent, that’s a 16-year low. Studies show this should create some concern since historically, when unemployment stays under 5 percent for an extended period of time, a recession is not far behind. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case because it was also announced over 60 percent of Americans feel good about the economy and their personal economic situation.

When the applicant rate increases, your chances decrease.

When unemployment rates are low and consumer confidence is high, one of the byproducts is a dramatic increase in the number of people who look for a new job. Today, companies are screaming they can’t find enough talent. Meanwhile, job seekers are simultaneously complaining they can’t get job interviews, and they’re right. Thanks to online job postings and the automation of job applications, the number of job seekers ‘spraying and praying’ – a/k/a applying to a large number of jobs at once, is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, what these job seekers don’t often understand is in a good economy, the hiring process gets more complicated.

Yet, only 3% of applicants will make the cut.

Right now, companies are currently getting hundreds, sometimes thousands of applications for a single job posting. Because of this high-volume, they resort to using technology to help identify a smaller subset of applicants that are a match. Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) narrow down the thousands of applications to just a small handful. Studies show when ATS’s are used, an average of only 3% of the applicants get contacted. Which means, all those hours people spend filling out multiple long, tedious online applications is likely a waste of their time.

Want to get hired? Get around the ATS.

In competitive job markets, we say, “your network is your net worth.” With 80 percent of jobs being powered by referrals, knowing people who know people that work at the companies you want to get hired at is the fastest way to get a job. Why? Because referrals are always more valued and given more attention by recruiters. When a successful employee says they know someone for an open job, the assumption is talent knows talent. If you want to get around the ATS, here’s what to do:

1) Get focused on a core set of employers. Instead of trying to force a match between yourself and an online job posting, identify 10 to 20 companies that you’d like to work for. Having a clear interview bucket list makes it easier for you to concentrate your networking efforts. Which leads to…

2) Search your network for the ‘weak ties’. Studies by LinkedIn show most successful job referral come from people in your network who know people working at the companies on your bucket list. Learning how to ask for the introduction can put you on the fast-track to a job opportunity.

3) Learn to write disruptive cover letters to get recruiters’ attention. Instead of creating the same boring cover letter that makes recruiters cringe, learn how to write a compelling story about how you feel connected to the employer. Today, a well-done, original cover letter has far more influence over a recruiter’s perception of you than your resume. The key is to demonstrate how you personally relate to the purpose, values and beliefs of the company.

In conclusion, during times of economic prosperity, finding a new job may seem more attainable. But, it’s actually harder. You’ve got to educate yourself on the best ways to beat out the increased competition, or you could find your confidence waning with every rejection.

By: J.T. O’Donnell

Original Post: Inc.com