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 some advice on what you can include to show you've been productive.
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 option 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.