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How to get a job

Rob Sparno recently did something that 12.5 million Americans would kill to do. He did something that has never been attempted by this many people at once in the 60 years the government has been keeping records. He did something that's getting only more difficult with every day.

He got a job. A really good job. A 'pay the mortgage and still be able to pay your kid's private college tuition' kind of job.

When Sparno, 55, a longtime salesman, lost his position at Oracle (ORCL, Fortune 500), he knew the search wasn't going to be easy. He had friends who were out of work and struggling to find jobs. He knew that getting back in the game would require every skill he'd spent his career honing. Methodical by nature, Sparno made a trip to Staples, where he bought a black hardcover lined notebook. He vowed to record every day what he did, whom he talked to, how he felt, how many miles he ran. He even wrote down what he ate.

To keep his spirits up (another must if you're in the persuasion business), he organized a group of seven other executives - including a former COO and CFO - who also lived in his community of Princeton, N.J. They got together every few weeks on Saturday morning in the back corner of a local diner and shared tips, like what to do in a second-round interview and how to gather job leads. And by 9 a.m. each morning Sparno and another jobless friend would call each other and check: Okay, what are we going to do with this day?
Talkback: Tell your recession story

Rather than blast out resumes, Sparno drew up a list of about 15 former colleagues who were now in leadership positions - his prospect list, in sales parlance. Then he sat down to write them e-mails. One note was to someone he hadn't talked to in years, an old colleague from Netscape who now worked at Salesforce.com. In his e-mail Sparno wrote that he was looking for the "next new thing." Minutes later he got a text message from his contact's BlackBerry with two words: "Call me."

As every salesperson knows, getting prospective buyers to meet with you is just the first step. The key is figuring out, What do they want? What keeps them up at night? Sparno read every story he could find on Salesforce.com (CRM). He watched YouTube videos of CEO Marc Benioff being interviewed by reporters, all the while taking notes. ("It was just like cramming for an exam.") To organize his thoughts, he assembled a five-slide PowerPoint presentation going through exactly how he would approach the job and what he would accomplish in the first 30, 60, and 90 days.

By the time he went for the final interview - his seventh - he had his pitch down perfectly. Halfway through the meeting, Sparno and the manager started discussing how to target a client Sparno had worked with before. The manager went up to the whiteboard to throw out some ideas, and Sparno leaped up to join him, until the two were standing shoulder to shoulder, markers in hand, batting strategies back and forth.

Two-and-a-half months after leaving Oracle, Sparno got the job. All it took was a scheduled daily pep talk, a fraternity of out-of-work neighbors, voluminous research, seven rounds of interviews, a bout of inspiration at the whiteboard, and, of course, a food diary.

You may have heard - it's rough out there. Not only is the unemployment rate the highest it's been in 25 years, but the situation is deteriorating fast. This is not your run-of-the-mill recessionary job market. If unemployment hits 10% next year, as some economists expect, the country will have seen the fastest rise in joblessness since the 1930s. What's more, as you've no doubt noticed from talking to neighbors and friends, the phenomenon is hitting a broad swath of the population: The unemployment rate of college graduates, 4.1%, is the highest on record since the government started keeping track in 1992. At this pace, economists at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute estimate that in 2010 fully one-third of the U.S. population will at some point in the year be unemployed, or working part-time when they'd rather be full-time.

It's enough to drive the average job seeker to distraction. Like just about every unemployed twentysomething, Jamie Varon, 23, had her heart set on working at Twitter. She had already applied for a position through the company's website. And asked a contact at Google to put in a good word for her. And showed up at the company's headquarters with a bag of cookies in an attempt to charm a recruiter into talking to her. But she still hadn't landed an interview.

What Varon did next made her feel a little crazy. But then, it's a crazy time to be looking for a job. She created a website called twittershouldhireme.com, including her resume, recommendations, and a blog tracking her quest. Within 24 hours the company contacted her. She had a lunch meeting set up at Twitter, and in the meantime got two job offers from tech companies that had noticed her site, which has even spawned imitators: googleshouldhireme.com and facebookshouldhireme.com.

Getting noticed is a big accomplishment: Many companies have so many applicants that they're leery of advertising open positions. Just four hours after the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League posted a position for an assistant on Jobing.com, a manager called the site pleading for the ad to be taken down; the company had already received 180 resumes. UnitedHealthcare, for instance, asked Fortune not to disclose the number of jobs it has open. The spokesperson said he feared an onslaught of job seekers, citing a recent incident he had heard about where 700 people applied for a janitorial position at an Ohio school.

Still, hiring has not stalled entirely. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while 2.5 million people were laid off in January, 4.4 million new workers were hired (bet that's a number you missed amid all the depressing news). But with the ratio of job seekers to openings at 3.9, vs. 1.7 at the start of the recession, the tactics that might have worked when the economy stalled in 1991 or 2001 simply won't cut it anymore. Just finding openings is a project in and of itself. "When you're in a recession and employers are all going stealth, you're probably looking at 90% or more [positions] being in the hidden job market," says David Perry of executive search firm Perry-Martel International and co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters.

Meaning a job seeker must be part detective, part consultant, part salesperson. Rob Sparno and Jamie Varon were willing to do whatever it took. Are you?

It's hot inside the National Capital Region Job Fair in Falls Church, Va., and it smells like sweat. Hundreds of nervous job seekers are navigating narrow hallways and waiting to talk with recruiters. You know it's bad when even the line for Freddie Mac is long.

Lisa Hamm, a recruiter for consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, takes a swig from her Aquafina bottle. It's all she has time for between talks with job hunters. People are waiting as long as an hour for just a few minutes of her time. The more impatient give up and simply plop their resumes onto a pile and walk away. You get the sense they're just buying an extra lottery ticket.

When Fortune called Hamm after the job fair, she reported that Booz Allen had received 250 resumes that day, but only four people were immediately asked in for interviews. In other words, those fair attendees might as well have played the lottery. "The thing to avoid is thinking that by sending out a ton of resumes, you're looking for a job. You're not," says Steven J. Greenberg, publisher of Jobs4point0.com, a website targeted at job seekers over 40.

That was a lesson Alfred Garcia, 43, learned fast. At the end of last year he found himself job hunting for the first time in his professional life when he had to shutter his Internet startup after funding fell through. "I came out of law school in '89, '90. You didn't so much look for a job as a job found you," he says.

The jobs he saw online were far below his experience and pay grade. So he hit the phones, calling about 40 former colleagues. A month into his search he reached a contact from his days at AOL who had started his own firm, Perfect Sense Digital, which helps companies manage their online strategy. As they chatted, it emerged that the CEO did know of some opportunities - at his own company. He hired Garcia as a contract consultant and a month later brought him in full-time.

Garcia had an enviable contact list at the ready. That's the best-case scenario. But what if you don't know a soul?

Jonathan Kooker, 31, graduated last spring from Georgetown's law school, and by his own admission he wasn't the glad-handing type. While his fellow students schmoozed at bars with big-firm recruiters, to Kooker "it felt like a hazing ritual."

So instead of embarking on a job search, Kooker went on a mentor search. He found the website of an immigration-lawyers group and started cold e-mailing. Kooker explains, "I'd e-mail, 'I'm interested in how you developed your career because I'd like to have that position in 20 years. Would you let me come interview you?'"

Before a meeting, Kooker would smooth out his curly dark hair and put on a suit, and he always arrived with ideas on how firms could attract more clients. He once walked into a meeting with the head of a firm's immigration department, and the woman said she would have to cancel because she was inundated with clients dealing with a new compliance rule. Kooker immediately responded, "Well, it's my opinion that this is a good thing, because I see it as an area to home in on for business." The attorney agreed to give him 15 minutes while she ate a sandwich at her desk. They ended up talking for 45 minutes, and by the end she basically said, "You're incredible. We're going to have to find you a job."

She referred him, and the next day Kooker received a call from another firm, which turned into his first offer. Another lawyer with 13 years' experience proposed a joint venture with Kooker. He even got an offer from a firm in Israel for some of its caseload - a job that Kooker took on. After contacting 60 lawyers and talking with 25, Kooker found it difficult to stop networking because he was learning so much. "They're all potential mentors, and although they may not have a job now, in four years they might. And they'll remember me," he says.

If you need to fill out your network quickly, one of the easiest moves is to join a professional association. David Stevens sensed he was on the verge of losing his job selling ads for two radio stations, so he joined his local chamber of commerce in Santa Clara, Calif. In the span of three months, while still working, Stevens forced himself to attend as many events as possible. Anytime he met someone at an event, Stevens would add him as a contact on LinkedIn, the social-networking site aimed at professionals. "When the time came, he says, I updated my [LinkedIn] status to 'I'm up for grabs - who wants me?'" Soon after, the CEO of the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce called. There was an opening at the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce. Within a week Stevens, 28, was at his new desk.

Another way to build new contacts is to volunteer. Robin Palchus lost her job as a senior HR director at a national accounting firm last March, so she started spending more time working with a career-networking support group at her church. One evening she was paired with a man who needed help tweaking his resume and preparing for an interview. She gave him some tips, and within two weeks he sent her an e-mail saying he had a job. He thanked her, then offered to refer her to his new company, Booz Allen Hamilton. A few days later Palchus received a call from a recruiter there, and after 11 interviews she joined the company as a senior associate.

Now a caveat: Nobody has a free hour to hear your sob story. You have to make a compelling case for busy people to clear time for you. "Just meeting people to network in the industry broadly - no one has time for that now," says Lisa Rutherford, president of tech startup Twofish, which supports transactions in online games and social networks. You're best off coming with a referral and having a very specific request. "For example, if someone said to me, 'I'm looking at all the different mobile payment gateway providers, and I'd love to understand your perspective on these competitors,' obviously I can help with that," explains Rutherford.

One surefire way to grab people's attention is to offer intel on their competitors. David Perry, the headhunter, advises gathering such tidbits whenever you go on an interview. When the hiring manager asks whether you have any questions, Perry recommends saying, "Yes, as a matter of fact I do. I understand your five competitors are such and such. What is it about ABC Company that makes you guys nervous?" Take notes, and when you get to your car, pick up the phone and call those competitors: 'I just left an interview at XYZ Corp. Apparently you're doing this and this, and it's keeping them up at night. Do you have time for coffee?'"

It's hard to know how aggressive to be these days. Allen Wright and his son were just digging into their pancakes at an IHOP restaurant in Gainesville, Texas - they were coming back from the annual Texas-Oklahoma football game - when Wright spotted Larry Nichols, the CEO of Devon Energy, walking through the door with his wife. Wright was looking for a job after leaving Koch Industries to move to Oklahoma City, and Nichols was on his list of people to contact. Despite being unshaven and wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Wright caught Nichols and set up a meeting for the next week. After several more follow-up phone calls (about one a week), he eventually got the job as director of public affairs and employee engagement at Devon, the country's largest independent natural gas and oil producer. So being a bit of a noodge worked for Wright.

But Sara Laschever, co-author of "Women Don't Ask" with Linda C. Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon, points out that for women especially, the pushiness required in this job market may be tough to pull off. "When men are being aggressive or being forthright or focused, we think, 'He's very goal-oriented,'" she says. "And when a woman does it, it's 'God, who does she think she is?'" Like it or not, says Laschever, their research shows that "for women to be persuasive, they need to be perceived as likable. Men just need to be perceived as confident."

On a recent morning in Columbus, Ga., 19 Aflac employees were seated around a table in a building next door, discussing some IT positions they needed to fill. Aflac has never had layoffs in its 54-year history and is now in the enviable position of attracting more talent than it has room for.

The recruiters are doing a status check on several open positions. An IT manager, Octavio Herrera, who's wearing a yellow tie with white Aflac ducks, says he's found some candidates on LinkedIn for a systems security administration position. For another opening, LaShena Smith, the senior technical recruiter at Aflac, reports that she interviewed someone whose manner she found too aggressive for the position. The candidate was dinged. As Herrera later notes, "Technology can always be taught. [I want] great communication skills and someone who works well with others."

Like many large companies, Aflac keeps a huge database of job applicants it can search for certain key words like "supervised staff" if the company wants someone with management experience. Anyone who applies online is funneled through this system.

Typically a recruiter will present four or five candidates to the manager, so perfecting your resume is critical. "The reality is we have a 'no' pile and a 'maybe' pile, and it takes four seconds to know where it winds up," says Glenn Fox, AOL's former head of recruiting and the CEO of BusinessElite, an invitation-only website for senior executives and those who hire them.

Always include metrics that describe your work: How many direct reports did you have? What was your budget? And be sure to mirror your resume to the description of the job you want. If the position is "product marketer" and you've done that kind of work before, actually use the words "product marketing" to describe your experience.

As for cover letters, recruiters and managers are split on how much weight they carry. Some advocate writing only a few compelling sentences, because no one has time to read a drawn-out letter. Others still recommend the traditional format of three or four paragraphs to show off your writing prowess. Kevin Donlin, president of Guaranteed resumes, advises clients to add a PS note at the bottom of a cover letter with a punchy sentence on why you'd be great for the job. People tend to read those out of curiosity.

Clever packaging can only take you so far, though. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School, argues that since the 1980s there's been a fundamental shift in the way companies hire. As with just-in-time manufacturing, in which companies lower inventory to reduce carrying costs, Cappelli says employers are adjusting to changing markets by plugging in perfectly suited workers from the outside when they're needed, then dropping them when they're done. He calls it the "just-in-time workforce."

That is bad news for job seekers who are hoping to reinvent themselves in this recession. "You're not going to change your career in this downturn," he says. "Nobody's going to hire you and say, 'I know you were in finance, but we're going to retrain you to be in marketing.'" Adds Neil Davies, a Microsoft staffing manager. "If we need five things, in the current market we're not really moving forward on people who have four out of the five."

Sometimes, though, even when you're not perfect on paper, you can make a great case for yourself.

"I have no reason to hire you," said the hiring manager at SAS, the software company, when Pat Bennett walked in for an interview. Bennett, 52, had no background selling technology software. But she pitched herself as a perfect fit in a unit targeting financial services clients. Her last job had been at LexisNexis, handling high-strung attorneys every day. Surely she could deal with hedge fund managers too. In her second-round interview, Bennett gave a presentation showing how she'd approach the business in her first 30 days. She got the job.

In this environment, companies simply can't afford to hope you'll be able to do the job. You need to demonstrate it. "Gone is the time when you could have the first year to prove yourself," says Juliet Flint, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers who advises the firm's portfolio companies on talent and recruiting. "You need to have immediate impact in the first 30 days."

Well before you're hired, there are ways to show off your strengths. The CEO of tech startup AdaptiveBlue said the company just hired an engineer who found three problems in the software he'd be testing before he even came in for an interview.

Michael J.A. Ehrlich, laid off from his job in research equity sales at Oppenheimer, found another clever way to show prospective employers he would bring in new business. He persuaded one former client, a hedge fund, to let him use its office to conduct his job search. The boutique research shop JNK Securities Corp. was so impressed that it hired him less than three weeks later.

If you dazzle a company enough, it might even create a position to make use of your talents. After Chris DeBrusk sold his consulting firm, he started kicking around an idea for a product to help financial services catch any ethical lapses by doing surveillance on their own trading activity. He took his idea to half-a-dozen companies, including Sapient in Boston, where he had worked eight years earlier. His presentations laid out the business opportunity, what kind of revenue upside it could bring, and when. Sapient brought him on in February. "In my experience most firms have open requirements," says DeBrusk. "It's about building the relationship first and then finding the job."

So when you're following up on an interview, don't just send a pat thank-you note. Think about what you learned from the interview and show how it sparked some new ideas about the job. If you're reading an article that seems relevant, send it along with some commentary. "Every so often I would send an article to a vice president to let him know I was thinking about the market," says Sparno. "I'd write, 'Hey, John, interesting article on market dynamics,' just to show him this is a guy who's thinking not just about a job - I'm someone who can think strategically."

Even though the market is brutal right now, the worst thing you can do for your career is to take a job that doesn't fit you. Not only will you not do your best work, but when the recession ends (and it will), you'll be moving in the wrong direction.

"I didn't want any job just to have a job," says Jonathan Kooker, the law school grad, "because then, when people start hiring again in two years, I'd be stuck with experience I didn't want." Sure, he's only 31. He doesn't have kids or a mortgage. But he does have something 12.5 million people desperately want: an employer.

Gas prices rose above the $2 mark for the first time in four months, according to a motorist group's daily survey Thursday.

The national average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline increased to $2.009, up 2.3 cents from the previous day, motorist group AAA reported.

That's the ninth consecutive daily increase. In that time, prices at the pump have increased 9.9 cents on average, or 5.2%.

The last time gas was over $2 was Nov. 20, 2008, when the national average was $2.02.

The average price per gallon is down 51.1% from the record-high price of $4.114 that AAA reported on July 17, 2008.

Alaska has the highest prices, at $2.496 per gallon, while Wyoming is lowest at $1.798. Average prices are $2 and above in 22 states and the District of Columbia, AAA said.

Oil: In early trading on Thursday, oil prices jumped $1.23, or 2.3%, to $54.

The Energy Information Administration released a mixed inventory report Wednesday, showing soaring oil supplies but lower-than-expected gasoline stockpiles.

Oil prices remained lower but recovered from earlier losses on Wednesday as news of the Treasury Department's bad-bank plan, which pleased investors, outweighed the supply report. Crude prices settled down 2.2% to $52.77.

Outrage over $165 million in bonuses AIG paid to top executives after having received more than $170 billion in taxpayer-funded assistance eclipsed President Obama's ninth week in office.

"I understand how mad everybody is about this AIG bonus business," Obama said Thursday at a town hall meeting in Los Angeles. "And even though I didn't draw up these AIG contracts...it's my responsibility to fix the system."

The scandal fueled the anger many Americans already feel over the government's handling of the financial crisis. But the president maintained that aggressive action is key to the nation's economic recovery.

"We can be as mad as we want, but the fact of the matter is, we've got to work through this huge mess that was made in the financial system," he said.
The week that was

Bonus backlash: Obama bluntly criticized AIG on Monday, calling the bonuses an "outrage," and directed Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to explore ways to block them.

"This is a corporation that finds itself in financial distress due to recklessness and greed," Obama said before unveiling a plan to help boost lending to small businesses. "It's hard to understand how derivative traders at AIG warranted any bonuses."

But the controversy came to a head Wednesday when Edward Liddy, AIG's chief executive, testified before Congress that paying the bonuses was "distasteful" but necessary because the company was contractually obligated to do so.

Liddy said he had asked some employees to give part of the money back, and that some had already complied. But lawmakers said they remained concerned about how AIG is being managed.

House lawmakers went one step further Thursday passing legislation aimed at recouping the bonuses by taxing individuals at companies that have received taxpayer-funded assistance.

Meanwhile, differing accounts of when officials learned of the bonuses resulted in a bout of finger pointing between Liddy and Geithner.

The Treasury Secretary was also scrutinized for a provision in the recently passed economic stimulus bill, included at his department's behest, that allowed AIG to pay out the bonuses.

AIG's woes stem from losses on insurance contracts it sold to holders of complex derivatives that have plummeted in value. The company also took massive writedowns on bad bets tied to the mortgage market made predominately by its financial products unit.

Fed: On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve announced plans to buy more than $1 trillion in assets, including $300 billion in U.S. bonds, in an effort to ease the flow of credit.

By purchasing government bonds, the central bank hopes to drive down interest rates on other types of loans, such as home loans and corporate debt, which would help boost the overall economy.

The move comes as the Fed's main tool for boosting economic activity, interest rates, has been effectively taken off the table. As expected, the Fed held its key interest rate steady near 0%.

Stock and bond prices soared immediately after the announcement. But the momentum faded as investors considered the long term effects of the plan, which would greatly expand the Fed's balance sheet and could undermine the value of the dollar.

Budget: Obama continued to push his long-term economic goals, saying that postponing investments in health care, renewable energy and education would be irresponsible.

"To kick these problems down the road for another four years or eight years would be to continue the same irresponsibility that led us to this point," he said.

Last month, the president unveiled a 10-year outline for the federal budget that calls for large investments in social services and would allow certain tax breaks for higher earning households to expire.

The plan, which projects a budget deficit of $1.75 trillion this year, has come under criticism for being overly ambitious and too expensive given the challenges already facing the nation's economy.

"There are those who say these plans are too ambitious," Obama said in Los Angeles. "Well, I say our challenges are too large to ignore."
The week ahead

Looking to the week ahead, Obama will address the nation on Tuesday in a prime-time news conference.

Also on Tuesday, the House Financial Services Committee will hear testimony from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on the AIG bonus payments.

100-day scorecard: Week 9 CNNMoney.com will continue to track Obama's first 100 days in office and keep score of the government's unprecedented efforts to fix the ailing economy.

A index forecasting economic activity fell in February, ending two months of surprise increases, after the government took action to inject money into the ailing financial system.

The index of leading economic indicators fell 0.4%, according to the Conference Board. The reading is intended to predict economic activity in the next 3-6 months.

Analysts were expecting a drop of 0.6%, according to a consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com.

The index rose unexpectedly in the prior two months. A jump of 0.4% in January followed an uptick of 0.2% in December.

The measure is based on 10 components, six of which increased in February: interest rate spread; index of supplier deliveries; building permits; real money supply; manufacturers' new orders for consumer goods and materials; and manufacturers' new orders for nondefense capital goods.

Some of those six indicators enjoyed surprising upticks in recent economic data.

Housing starts unexpectedly surged 22% February, after falling for eight months. It was the first time housing starts increased since June.

Declines: The remaining four components declined: average weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance; stock prices; index of consumer expectations, and average weekly manufacturing hours.

The components in decline aren't surprising after a slew of negative reports.

The number of people filing initial claims for unemployment benefits fell slightly last week, but continuing claims hit a fresh record high of more than 5.47 million.

The unemployment rate is up to 8.1%, the highest level in 25 years.

Stock prices rallied last week, but the Dow Jones industrial average is still down almost 50% from its peak in October 2007. Consumer confidence fell to a three-month low in February.

Fed takes action: The Federal Reserve in recent months has taken several steps to boost the financial system.

The Fed said Wednesday said it would spend up to $300 billion over the next six months to buy long-term Treasurys, a move designed to free up credit.

The Fed also announced plans to buy an additional $750 billion in mortgage-backed securities in an attempt to lower mortgage rates. The benchmark lending rate remained unchanged, as it was already at a record-low range of 0-0.25%.

It's hoped that these actions will inject liquidity into the credit markets and spark lending.

With pink slips accelerating nationwide, health care experts say it's a good idea for everyone - even those who feel their job isn't at risk - to know about their health care rights and options.

"Being proactive about your [health care] coverage is vitally important, especially if you want to protect your family in these times," said Ankeny Minoux, president of the Foundation for Health Coverage Education.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Sign up for COBRA. If you are laid off, immediately ask the company exactly when your employer-paid coverage expires, according to Devon Herrick, health economist with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

By law, employers have to provide laid-off workers information about COBRA, a government mandate that gives workers who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue coverage under their group plan for a limited period.

The typical monthly premium for COBRA is $300 for an individual and $1,000 for family coverage. You have to sign up for COBRA within 60 days of being laid off or you lose that option.

"People always think COBRA is too expensive," said Minou. But it's more affordable now under the stimulus bill" signed last month by President Obama. Specifically, the government will provide a 65% subsidy to businesses who continue COBRA premiums for laid-off employees for a period of 9 months. The subsidy will continue until Dec. 31, 2009.
0:00 /2:40Health care 2.0

COBRA coverage typically extends for 18 to 36 months. Once the COBRA coverage is exhausted, Minoux suggests people convert to an individual plan under HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) to avoid any gaps in their coverage.

Put the children in a CHIP plan. If you or your spouse can't afford the COBRA family premium, the parents can stay on COBRA but move the kids to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage for children living in families with income that is modest but too high for them to be eligible for Medicaid.

"Mix and match coverage options to keep the costs down," Minoux said.

This is also a good option to for low to mid-income families in which one or both parents are working but need to save money, Minoux said. In California, for example, families with a household income of $66,150, or 300% above the federal poverty level, can still enroll their children in a SCHIP plan.

In February, President Obama signed legislation extending the SCHIP program, expanding health coverage by an additional 3 million children, to 11 million children.

Put yourself on SCHIP. Some states offer programs that allow adults to enroll in SCHIP programs.

In Connecticut, the Health Care for Uninsured Kids and Youth program includes parents, relatives, caregivers and pregnant women in families that have household incomes between 185% to 235% above the federal poverty limit, or between $38,000 to $55,000.

Your job shipped overseas? Look into the Health Care Tax Credit (HCTC).

"If your company has moved overseas, or is outsourcing its operations, the government will pick up part of the [insurance] premium," said Minoux.

She said the "displaced" worker would pay 20% and the government would pay as much as 80% of the premium as long as the unemployed worker receives benefits under the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program.

About to retire? You have to be 65 years old before you are eligible for Medicare.

So what happens if you are 55 years old, are laid off and have a pre-existing medical condition? If you were on your employer's health plan, you will qualify for COBRA and subsequently for an individual plan.

However, if you weren't on your employer's health plan, then you won't qualify for COBRA. In that case, Minoux said people should look for "high risk pool" insurance options in their state, such as the MRMIP (Major Risk Medical Insurance Program) offered in California.

This is a 36-month program that provides coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Prescription assistance. Organizations such as non-profit Partnership for Prescription Assistance offer free programs to provide discounts of as much as 20% on prescription drugs, which can help save on drug costs, especially when there's no income coming in.

Lastly, Minoux said several of these state-funded programs have waiting lists, so it might be worth while to sign up for more than one.

"Don't be deterred," she said.

Stocks were set for a mostly lower open Tuesday as investors looking to restart last week's rally await government reports on the housing market and inflation.

At 8:15 a.m. ET, the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P futures were down modestly, while the Nasdaq futures made slight gains.

Futures measure current index values against the perceived future performance. Futures can be used as a forecast for trading activity after the bell, though they're not always accurate.
0:00 /04:02'Starting to form the bottom'

On Monday, stocks couldn't sustain earlier gains, snapping a four-session winning streak. The Dow lost 7 points, the S&P was down 0.4% and the Nasdaq fell nearly 2% as tech stocks faltered.

"The market is trying to hold on to the gains, so it needs to trade within narrow levels, unless we have some earth shattering news, one way or another," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist for Avalon Partners.

Global markets on Tuesday were mixed. In Asia, Tokyo's Nikkei index surged 3.2%. The European markets were lower in midday trading.

Economy: The government issues key reports on housing and inflation before the markets open.

Housing starts are expected to have fallen in February to a 450,000 annual rate in February from 466,000 the previous month, according to a consensus of economists surveyed by Briefing.com. Building permits are expected to have dropped to a 500,000 annual rate from 531,000 in January.

The Producer Price Index (PPI), a measure of wholesale inflation, is forecast to have risen 0.4% in February, according to the Briefing.com consensus, after rising 0.8% in the previous month. The so-called core PPI, which strips volatile food and energy prices, is expected to be up 0.1% after climbing 0.4% in the previous month.

The Fed's policy-making body begins a two-day meeting. It's expected to hold interest rates steady near zero percent, and determine the best ways to help kick the economy out of the recession.

Companies: The aluminum company Alcoa (AA, Fortune 500) said it slashed its dividend by 82% on Monday, in an effort to reduce costs by $2.4 billion annually. This includes the ongoing plan to cut 13,500 jobs by the end of the year. Alcoa shares were down 12% in premarket trading.

Retailer Target (TGT, Fortune 500) is facing a proxy fight, as shareholder William Ackerman is pushing to nominate five board seats. Target shares rose 2% in premarket trading.

Oil and money: Oil prices edged down 3 cents a barrel to $47.32. The dollar rose versus the euro, the British pound and the yen.

Bank stocks extended last week's big rally on Monday as persistent fears about the underlying health of the beleaguered sector continue to subside.

JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) and Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500) gained 4% and nearly 12% respectively in early afternoon trading. Shares of Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), which slipped to a low of 97 cents a share earlier this month, enjoyed its seventh-straight gain, climbing more than 30% to about $2.32.

Bank stocks have rallied in four out the last five trading sessions after top executives at some of the biggest firms, including JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, indicated that they were profitable during the first two months of the year.

The KBW Bank Index and S&P Banking Index, two widely-watched sector indicators, gained 37% and 46% last week.

Helping lead bank stocks higher Monday was a report that the British banking giant Barclays (BCS) was looking to sell its iShares business, a part of its asset-management division. The Wall Street Journal reported that the sale could fetch $5.6 billion.

Also providing a boost was Monday's proposal by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, the private-sector group that sets U.S. accounting rules along with the SEC, to give companies that rely on mark-to-market accounting greater leeway in valuing assets.

The proposed change could help stem the tide of painful writedowns that banks have suffered over the last year and possibly fuel investor interest in the group.

"There is a general relief that these banks are not in an endless tailspin," said Marshall Front, chairman of Chicago-based money management firm Front Barnett Associates. "People are now looking for opportunities instead of running from risk."

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