How to Get a Job if You Haven't Worked in a While

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Fall is just around the corner. Kids are (or almost) back in school. Maybe you're starting to think about going back to work. It can be an overwhelming feeling. If you've been raising children, caring for sick loved ones or volunteering for an extended period, you may think you're out of the game and won't be able to rejoin the labor force.

It's time to start thinking about what you've been doing during your employment gap. Once you determine the skills you've been utilizing during your time away, you'll want to spend time refining your written and online presentation. There are clear and clever ways to address gaps and inconsistent work history that will help you get an interview. Ask yourself the following questions:What have I been busy doing? Many people discount volunteer positions, such as working with parent-teacher organizations or other nonprofit groups. These are important, because you use a lot of skills that align with many paid jobs.

Which of the skills I've used during this period translate well to a job? If you've raised kids or taken care of a sick relative, you likely have strong coordination and management skills. When you work with a nonprofit or school organization, you often gain fundraising or volunteer coordination skills. If you've recruited and trained volunteers, you've been doing human resources work.

How do I present this in a résumé?
  • Career summary. Even if you do nothing else to enhance your résumé, the best thing to do is summarize your qualifications in a few lines or bullets at the top. This is not an objective statement – those are a thing of the past. Include your areas of expertise here as well. These are not cliche résumé phrases, such as "well-organized" or "manages time well." Research keywords specific to the industry or jobs you previously held, and include those in which you have a decent amount of knowledge.
  • Key accomplishments. If you had a career prior to the gap that was high level, have worked for well-known companies or have significant accomplishments, create a "key accomplishments" section. Choose three to four major achievements.
  • Résumé body. One of the best formats to use when you have a gap is a functional résumé. Group your job-description bullets by type of skill, and create a headline for each. Your jobs and volunteer positions (yes, these too!) should be listed after this part with basic information: job title, organization, location, and months and years held. Don't forget to include at the end awards, education (plus any professional development courses or conferences), publications and organizations with which you are affiliated.
How do I brand myself online? For professional purposes, LinkedIn remains the most widely used medium. Create a profile, and fill in all sections that apply to you. LinkedIn will take you through each section and ask you questions to help you complete it. The headline, summary and descriptions of your employment and volunteer work are essential. While your résumé and LinkedIn profile should be different, make sure you're including as many skills from your industry that apply to your background. These should be included throughout your profile and not only in the "skills" section.

How much do I share with an employer? It is best to be honest. You do not have to give a complete account of your years spent out of the workforce in a cover letter or résumé, but it will help an employer understand your story and the gap in work history if you are transparent. If you don't have volunteer or leadership positions that warrant a description, you should still explain what you have been doing during this time briefly in your cover letter and résumé. You don't want to leave what you've been doing during the gap up to the employer's imagination.

It's true that not all employers will be receptive to an employment gap, but many will as they recognize that people nowadays have different career and life paths. Employers are starting to realize that many jobs can be taught; what is much harder to do is find people with strong cognitive and interpersonal abilities who will succeed in most any job they encounter. It is costly for an employer to hire a person who has the required education and qualifications on paper but cannot work well on a team. If you can demonstrate this initially – what you are capable of and that you're motivated – you'll be a strong contender for a variety of jobs.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services, and founder of ServingTalent, a recruitment and placement firm that matches military and government spouses with employers. She worked for over 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.
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