Resume help for the unemployed
Do you have gaps in your resume? Focus on what you've achieved during the downtime, so your resume speaks to your resourcefulness and can-do attitude.
Mounting a job search when you’re unemployed may leave you feeling like you can’t compete with your gainfully employed peers. This just isn’t true. Transform your resume from holding you back to propelling your success.
Assess the gap
“The best way to address an employment gap depends on how long you’ve been out of work,” says Teena Rose, director of resume-writing firm ExpertResumes.com.
Unemployed for a year or less? Then your best strategy may be to say nothing. “Shorter time frames of up to a year or so aren’t absolute necessities to explain on a resume,” says Rose, noting that she advises her clients with less than 12 months of unemployment to resist the temptation to overexpound.
“Hiring managers understand job candidates will have date gaps from time to time, especially when factoring in the jobs lost during this recent recession,” she says.
Longer employment gaps can be trickier, and this is where your resume could use some well-crafted words to show how you’ve filled that gap. Here’s how to write a resume to show you’ve been productive while between jobs.
Emphasize how, not why
“Hiring managers are more interested in knowing how you used your time away from the workforce as opposed to why you were unemployed,” says Anne-Marie Ditta, president of First Impression Career Services, a Mount Vernon, New York-based career-planning firm.
Instead of focusing on the layoff, company closure, job termination, caregiver responsibilities or other circumstances that led to unemployment, Ditta recommends you spotlight how this time off allowed you to acquire new skills, deepen existing industry knowledge or cultivate your contacts.
Get busy during your unemployment
If you can’t think of a single resume-worthy activity or pursuit to show how you’ve used your time off, then you need to get busy. “I coach my clients that unemployment is not vacation time,” says Kathy Sweeney, president of resume-writing firm The Write Resume. “If they haven’t been involved in some sort of activity, I implore them to investigate options to gain further experience.”
Many activities can provide compelling resume content. For example, volunteering; tutoring; coaching sports; learning a new computer program; studying a foreign language; or pursuing temporary, freelance or contract work can show current experience on the resume.
For example, a stay-at-home parent can highlight her accomplishments as a volunteer like this: “Won board approval to establish a community parent/child playgroup at the town hall. Led grassroots group to raise $47,500 annually and opened new revenue stream for county.”
Sweeney tells her clients “that experience is experience, regardless of whether it is paid or volunteer. If a client is enrolled in school, for example, I will make that a full-time job on the resume. I’ll include information on the certificate or degree program as well as any quantifiable results, such as grades or instructor praise.”
Ditta emphasizes the importance of showcasing what you accomplished during your unemployment, just as you would for paid employment. “‘Devoted four years to managing a large estate and complex/difficult medical decisions while caring for terminally ill parent’ will be better-received by an employer than ‘took time off to care for a sick relative,’” she says.
Avoid these resume mistakes
- Never exaggerate dates on your resume to extend the duration of your last job: “Stretching dates to cover a gap is lying on a resume, and that is never a good option,” Ditta warns.
- Don’t feel forced to use a traditional resume format: A purely chronological resume may not be the best resume format for those who have been unemployed for a number of years. Instead, explore the advantages of a combination resume, Rose suggests. This type of resume allows you to emphasize key skills while downplaying employment gaps.
- Don’t sell yourself short: “The most common mistake I see unemployed professionals make on their resumes is minimizing their contributions,” Ditta says. “I’ve worked with clients who have raised significant amounts of money for nonprofit organizations, for example, but when asked about this, they reply that they were only a volunteer. The fact is that they achieved it, and therefore, they should take credit for it.
“When it comes to covering resume gaps created by unemployment, it’s best to be proactive rather than reactive,” Rose says. By focusing on what you’ve achieved during this challenging period, you will demonstrate to employers your can-do attitude, resourcefulness and ability to drive successful results.
« Back to: Step 7: Your Work Experience
You'd be surprised how many job seekers have gaps in employment. If you're one of them, you need to know how to explain unemployment on your resume. Why? Because you want the employer or recruiter who's reading your resume to feel okay about those gaps. Hey, maybe he'll even be interested in learning more about them (in an interview)!
Also see: Resume Examples That Solve the Employment Gap Problem
What's Wrong With a Gap in Employment?
You might ask, "What's the big deal? Don’t I deserve a break once in a while?” Of course you do, just like the many responsible workers who take time off from their careers to travel, recover from injuries, take care of ill parents, and all sorts of other legitimate projects.
Employers understand. Most have taken time off themselves. But they want (and need) to know what you were doing during your time off. They'd especially like to learn that while you were unemployed you did something that supports your job objective (for example, going back to school for a related degree). If you didn't do something relevant to your work, be sure to tell them you were involved in something that shows strength of character (for example, volunteer work).
If an employer sees an unexplained hole on your resume he may think, “This person's hiding something” or “This looks like someone who could have a problem” (such as laziness, substance abuse, or prison time). In order to gain the employer’s trust, you need to explain gaps in your history.
How to Explain Unemployment
Here are a few things you should know about how to explain unemployment on your resume:
1. List only years — not months — when writing dates for your work history.
Using just years achieves two things:
- It makes it easier for the reader to quickly ballpark the length of time you stayed at each job.
- It conceals gaps that happened within a span of two calendar years.
Let me show you an example to demo that last point. Notice the gap here:
11/09 - 4/12, Night Manager, Taco Bell, Woodmont, NY
3/07 - 2/09, Day Manager, Denny’s Restaurant, Milpitas, CA
If you use only years and eliminate the months, there is no apparent gap:
2009-2012, Night Manager, Taco Bell, Woodmont, NY
2007-2009, Day Manager, Denny’s Restaurant, Milpitas, CA
2. Explain the gap if you have a period of unemployment that spans two calendar years or more.
Consider everything you were doing during that time (such as travel, volunteer work, internships, training, family projects) and if possible, present them so they're relevant to your job objective.
For example, a person who cared for an ill parent for two years and is now looking for a position as a pharmaceutical sales rep might write:
2010-2012, Primary Home Care Provider for terminally ill relative
Someone applying for a position as a travel agent might list his vacation destinations:
2010-2011, Travel: Central and South America
A mother re-entering the workforce who wants to be a teacher’s aide might write:
2010-2012, Parent and Classroom Volunteer, Brio High School
3. If the gap in your work history is not relevant to your job objective, explain it honestly and with dignity.
Warning: Don't refer to illness, unemployment (even if it is clearly due to a recession), and rehabilitation because they suggest that you might be a high-risk job seeker. Instead, write about something you were doing during that time, even if it’s not related to your job objective.
Here are some suggested “job titles” for such gaps:
Family Management (or Home Management)
Family Financial Management (or Estate Management)
Adventure Travel (or Travels to …)
4. Call this section Work History or History if you include unpaid "job titles" in your work history.
You don't want to use a heading like Professional Experience or Employment History because “professional” and “employment” both imply that you were paid for the work you did.
More on Unemployment on Your Resume
See what other articles I've written on how to deal with unemployment on a resume: Unemployment on Resume
Also see the Comments section of Ask Me Your Resume Writing Questions where I've helped many job seekers find answers to their unemployed-on-resume problems.
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Susan Ireland's Ready-Made Resume Builder
Professional Resume Writers
« Back to: Step 7: Your Work Experience