On the one hand, economists are sort of cheery this month: there are only 1.35 job seekers for every open job, down significantly from 6 job seekers per job during the recession. (Of course, those numbers have a ton of nuances to them, including Verizon’s strike, people who have taken themselves out of the workforce or people who are underemployed, in part-time jobs, etc. etc.).

On the other hand, job seekers are asking: where are the good, open jobs at my level? As a matter of fact, the voluntary job-quitting rate is at its lowest in a while, so people are clearly hanging on to their current jobs. Is that because there’s not as much out there for them to go to, or is it that they’re hesitant to take a job risk at the moment?

From a front-lines perspective, here’s what I’m seeing:

There actually are jobs, plenty of them.

Yet, something’s odd. I’m routinely hearing from employers that they’re having a hard time finding people to hire, and I also regularly hear from job seekers that there aren’t many jobs that fit them. What’s going on, then?
Here’s my take: I’m hearing from both employers AND job seekers that the hiring managers are being pickier than ever about the right fit. I think that trend became stronger in the recessionary days when employers did have their pick of many candidates, and they’ve clung to that exact-right-fit mindset even in marketplace with fewer job seekers. (Plus, I think that now that the economy is semi-stable, I think that job seekers who took a hit during the recession are being pickier about what they want, too.)

So, even if there isn’t a high VOLUME of competition from other job seekers, the REQUIREMENTS for competition are complicating the equation.

So, what’s a job seeker to do?

First things first: Your professional network is as strong as ever; if people are holding on to jobs, that means that they’re still employed and able to help you make connections. I’ve seen time and time again that a personal connection trumps job “requirements” and gives you a competitive edge in your job search.

Second, no matter what the economic conditions today or over the next year, how do you ensure that your career survives, and even thrives? Here are a few ideas for you to implement in your job search:

Set routine, weekly networking goals, if you haven’t already

On a routine basis, you should be checking in with your contacts to ask how their job is going, and see if you can connect with them to catch up. You should also be regularly adding to your LinkedIn contacts; when’s the last time you sat down and added at least 10 people you know?

Understand the market you’re competing in

Myopic vision never helps your job search. If you have your head down doing the same job you’ve been doing for two years, and haven’t learned the newest-and-greatest in your field, it’s time to start catching up. Or, if there are industry trends that are affecting where employers are and are NOT hiring these days (for example, are they starting to outsource something in your field?), you need to know that, too. Here’s what you need to find out: what are the growth areas? What areas might survive a possible future slump? What can you do to re-think your career goals and preferences to stay competitive?

Hone your message

If employers are picky, it’s your MAIN job to help them see your strengths and be willing to take a risk on those career skills you don’t quite have yet. Target your resume correctly, but also take stock: are there ways you can be leveraging social media to learn about, and then share, articles about trends in your industry? And, in interviews, are you able to confidently speak about the “gaps” that an employer might be worried about? You may not need to be an expert in something to get the job, but you at least need to speak intelligently about emerging trends.

Network your way to success

The job search might be competitive, but that doesn’t mean that meaningful professional conversations aren’t taking place. Try to maintain an active presence in relevant circles, by attending industry events, trade shows, conferences, forums and -as always- reconnecting with your peers and former colleagues. You can network with like-minded professionals and employers in person, but also focus on finding new connections in the digital world.

So, job seekers, I believe that your #1 strategy should be reading the marketplace to figure out where it’s heading, then helping your network understand how you can adapt and thrive in that new environment.