At a job fair last week, the tables literally turned on Lisa Newell. Always on the hiring side before, Newell was now standing opposite, as the supplicant. It was her first big step into a job search after being laid off last fall after 15 1/2 years with Ameriprise. She went into the fair having practiced her introductory pitch -- a "30-second elevator speech," in the lingo -- in front of a mirror. She left it with one breakthrough lesson: Never start with the employer you most hope to impress. Work through any case of nerves with places low on your list.

She remembers fall as an adjustment period. "The yard got raked a lot," she said. Then, a knee injury kept her down for a month; that meant she couldn't go full-bore into her job search until the first of the year. She is now buffing her skills, taking advanced computer applications at Normandale Community College -- with its tuition waiver for the unemployed -- and studying for a project management certificate from the University of St. Thomas. As a longtime recruiter herself, she is proficient at the use of computer jobs boards and business networking websites such as LinkedIn.

Because it seems that misery loves caffeine as well as company, Newell and other laid-off peers occasionally gather for coffee. All middle-age, credentialed women, they all are having a tough time finding work in this economy. Newell knows she caught a couple of breaks not everyone does: She has severance through June and access to health insurance through her husband.

Still, her jobless status hits her at odd moments. "One morning, my husband said, 'Oh, I wish I didn't have to get up,'" she recounted. "I said, 'I wish I did.'"