I was recently working with a client I'll call Mary. She was very worried about having been out of work for two years while she was an at home parent. Following the advice of a resume book, Mary wanted to "hide" her time out of work by talking about volunteer work that was unrelated to her career in sales. I told her that this was a bad idea. Instead, we used one line to inform potential employers why Mary was out of work and what she was doing. The rest of her resume focused on her 10 year career in sales and her many achievements. Most employers will understand that some very good employees take time off to care for children or sick relatives. Rather than telling them about experience that has nothing to do with the job they need to fill. Mary was focused in her job search, and she landed a job in a little over a month.
I often help clients prepare for job interviews. Almost all start by talking about what they don’t have. They are afraid that the interviewer will immediately detect their weakness and dismiss them as potential employees. Nothing could be further from the truth. Smart employers will, of course, address potential red flags like gaps in work history or a lack of experience. However, they are more interested in what an applicant has rather than what she lacks.
Instead of worrying about what you don’t have, start by focusing on your strengths. I tell clients to prepare for interviews by answering this question: “I will be a good fit for this position because (reason).” If you can convince employers that you have the knowledge, experience, and skill needed to do a job, they will be more likely to overlook what you lack or they will be more willing to train you in that area.
Before every interview, look carefully at the job post and company’s website. List ways you will be an asset to the firm. Practice talking about how your previous work experience is similar to what you will do for the new employer. Demonstrate that you will be able to do the job and that you want to do it. Every employer wants skill. What will set you apart is your ability to show motivation and interest in the company.
After you define your strengths and how they will benefit your prospective employer, it is important to practice how you would address any weak points. Keep these answers short and clear. Whenever possible, demonstrate how you are working on overcoming any problems. But remember that this exercise should not take even half the time you practice different ways to present positive reasons why you should be hired. Employers want the best person available. You are more likely to be that person if you know how to sell your strengths.
My clients often worry about “gaps” in their resume. When I ask them what they mean by a gap, they often answer that they were out of work for a few months. I reassure them that a period of a few months is not usually considered a gap. The best way to define a gap is a period of being out of work for a year or more. That is a problem that should be addressed on your resume.
In most cases, people are out of work a year or more because they were at-home parents or caring for a loved one. In those cases, my practice is to state that fact in one line. For example, At-Home Parent 2007-2010. Don’t try to paper over the gap with activities that have nothing to do with the job you are seeking. However, if you did gain some experience during your years outside the workforce, include that activity. For instance, if you are in fundraising and volunteered in a program at your child’s school that raised $200,000 for a new playground, take credit for that work and achievement.
Here are some other format issues that will help you avoid gaps:
1. Use whole years, not months/years, when you list your time with a company. If a company wants to know months or exact dates of your employment history, it can ask you to fill out an application.
2. Don’t go back in your work history more than 10-15 years. Most employers care about what you have done recently, the current skills and experience you will bring to their company.
3. If you have a volunteer experience that was the equivalent of a job or a part-time position, put that on your resume just as you would a full-time job. Be ready to explain in an interview how that part of your career improved your skills in a way that will benefit your new employer.
Employers are put off by gaps. Deal with them quickly, and then move on to what employers really want to see: Reasons why you are a qualified candidate.