The Great Recession has fundamentally changed the nation’s employment landscape.

The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows the national unemployment rate sitting at 9.5%, which is unchanged from this time a year ago when we were in the “midst” of the recession. Even worse, nearly half of the 15 million unemployed Americans have been out of work for longer than six months, a number that has remained frighteningly stable. When it comes to our latest crop of aspiring workers (those 20-24 years old), the unemployment rate is more than 17%. The fact is we are still in tough times and the end is not yet in sight. As most economists agree, recovery is going to be a long road.

Welcome to the “New Economy.” To make it in these tough times, both college students and battle-tested workforce veterans alike are going to have to start thinking differently. The old standard of brushing up those interview skills and polishing that resume won’t cut it anymore. The market is just too competitive. The New Economy is no longer about chasing opportunities, it’s about creating opportunities. Creating opportunities requires developing a distinctive brand and cultivating relationships.

Know Your Brand

Before you can successfully compete in today’s challenging market, you have to have an angle. That angle is your brand. Whether you realize it or not, you are in fact a brand. The challenge is making sure that brand truly speaks to who you are. Your brand should project your strengths so that the outside world can see them clearly. A brand is a promise, and how your brand comes across represents the value you promise to deliver.

When it comes to knowing and leveraging your brand, you have to start by looking inward. As the iconic psychologist, Carl Jung, once said, “Those who look outward dream, those who look inward awaken.” Creating an effective personal brand starts with reflecting on your values, intrinsics, and passions. Consider the following questions:

  • Values – What am I about? What am I willing to fight or sacrifice for?;
  • Intrinsics – What is my value proposition? What do I bring to the table and why is it better and different than my competition? ;
  • Passions – What excites me? What engages my attention?

After answering these questions for yourself, seek feedback from others. Find out if their answers are the same as yours. If potential employers and consumers don’t see your brand the way you do, you aren’t keeping the promise. The only way to make good on that promise is to be sure of the promise you are actually making. In the increasingly competitive marketplace, you either differentiate from the herd or get corralled into it.

Cultivate Critical Relationships

According to best- selling author and relationship consultant, Keith Ferrazzi's web site, “The real path to success in your career and in your personal life is through creating an inner circle of lifeline relationships, relationships that matter.” Getting a foot in the door in this economy is a tremendous challenge. The single best way to get a job in any market is through a personal connection. Connections come through the careful cultivation of relationships. 

When it comes to cultivating relationships, you must be thoughtful and deliberate. First, you must focus on those who want to help you and are in a position to help you. When it comes to examining your relationships, it’s easy to forget how extensive your networks really are. Take some time to really look though your cell phone contact list, e-mail contacts, Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, etc. You will be surprised at how many relationships you have neglected.

When it comes to building new connections, your task is simple: Go find the people who have the jobs you want. First and foremost, you should join every relevant professional association you can and be sure to attend the regular meetings, as well as volunteer to help out. Also, go to their happy hours, lunch spots and favorite hangouts. Immerse yourself into the world you want to work in so as to build the right relationships.

College students and recent grads have it particularly tough in this economy. Lack of experience and limited business contacts make it hard to get that inside track. If you are just starting out, the best way to develop connections in the industry you wish to pursue is through an internship. An internship is an opportunity to make connections, gain experience, and build your brand. Websites, such as the recently launched Internships.com, offer great tools for connecting internship seekers with employers at no charge. The fact is it’s a buyer’s market and employers are looking for effective ways to bring on new talent while minimizing costs. An internship allows you the chance to demonstrate your value to an employer, so they can determine your potential as a future hire.

The bottom line is that you must accept that the old rules no longer apply. Success in the New Economy is going to be about standing out from the herd. Distinguishing yourself is going to require knowing your brand and building that brand through cultivating strong relationships.

Michael “Dr. Woody” Woodward is author of the new book The YOU Plan: A 5-step Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career in the New Economy. Dr. Woody holds a PhD in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and is president of the Miami-based management consulting firm HCI.