Out of Work, Not Out of the Running

“I’ve been looking for a job” is no way to account for your time unemployed.

The longer your unemployment lasts, the harder it is to get a job or even an interview. That’s the perception of many professionals who’ve been out of work for extended periods.

It’s also reality, according to recruiters and hiring managers who admit they’re likelier to pass up job seekers with significant, unexplained gaps in their work histories.

Those recruiters see the stigma attached to lengthy unemployment as less damaging during recessionary times, since the experience is more common. The average period of unemployment now stands at 211 days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and higher earners average even longer without work. But long stretches without work will still count against you if you don’t handle the situation correctly.

Winning over hiring managers and HR pros requires you to account for your time out of the workforce, recruiters told Ladders.

“I don’t think that it is the gap in employment that will hurt people; I think it’s how they answer the question of what they were doing with their time,” said Kris Alban, director of strategic partnerships for iGrad, an organization that helps college graduates navigate career and financial challenges. “Were you using the time effectively, or were you catching up on old episodes of ‘Lost’?” asked Angela Lussier, author of “The Anti-Resume Revolution.”

In addition, there are ways you certainly shouldn’t account for your time: “I’ve been looking for a job” is not sufficient, said Mandy Minor, a resume writer and marketing strategist at J Allan Studios in St. Petersburg, Fla. “There’s really no excuse, other than mental-health issues such as depression, for someone to just sit at home.”

It’s critical for job seekers to show prospective employers that a long period between full-time jobs has been filled with some sort of productive and relevant experience. Employers understand that the employment situation is bleak, but they want to hire someone who has shown initiative during the time he or she has been between jobs.


The most common suggestion from recruiters and hiring experts is to work part-time or as a consultant, or volunteer in a way that is relevant to your career. If you engage in an activity that fits your career path, there’s no reason a consulting or volunteer position can’t fill that time in your resume. (Read more about turning volunteer service into career opportunities.)

“If you volunteer in a situation where you can utilize your day-to-day business skills, then I think it’s a great idea and a great way to further your career because you’re essentially doing a job and are not just sitting around,” said Rahul D. Yodh, an executive recruiter with Link Legal Search Group in Dallas. “At the same time, you’re building some contacts, and you never know where that will lead. If you can get a high-enough volunteering position, then that’s probably the best route to take.”

The same holds true for consulting and contract work, said Cheryl Palmer, president of Call to Career, an executive-coaching firm.

“Performing contract or temporary work makes it easy to explain what the job seeker has been doing on the resume and cover letter as well as in the interview,” she said. “This type of work also has the added benefit of giving the job seeker some income. And another benefit is that it puts the job seeker in a better position to find out about openings. If a full-time position becomes available in the company where the job seeker is doing contract work, it is very likely that the job seeker will be offered the position, since he or she is already a known entity to the company.”

There is no prohibition against listing consulting and volunteer positions in line with full-time work on a chronological resume, hiring experts told Ladders. (There are also ways to use the resume format, such as using years instead of months, to de-emphasize the time period.)

Experience outside the box

If you can’t find a volunteer or contract position that correlates exactly with your area of expertise, do what you can to align the experience with the jobs you are seeking.

For iGrad’s Alban, it’s less about having a good reason for the way you spent your time. “I feel the best way to handle this question is to tell a good story that demonstrates how you used creativity in your job search. Even if it didn’t work, we like that you demonstrated some out-of-the box thinking.”

Author Lussier recommended creating your own opportunities when none exist. Besides volunteering, devoting yourself to a hobby, interest, training or education can be a palatable answer for how you spent your unemployment.

Lussier also stressed the importance of “getting in front of people,” whether by joining a professional organization or making a public appearance: say, volunteering to give a presentation on a subject you know well. In short, anything that can enhance your resume and provide opportunities for networking is a good thing.

“That’s really where the best opportunities come,” Minor said, “when you put yourself out there.”

Time is short

If you haven’t been doing any of these things during your extended job hunt, it’s not too late. But the prospect of an uptick in the economy means you will soon be facing competition from employed but unhappy workers.

“The reason why market competition gets even worse for the unemployed at the beginning of a market recovery is because all the unhappy employed people finally get the courage to jump in, and recruiters will pick the employed over the unemployed,” said Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career expert; writer; speaker; and co-founder of SixFigureStart, a career-coaching firm.

To compete, Ceniza-Levine said, the unemployed need to match the advantages of their employed counterparts, including an air of confidence as well as current knowledge of top competitors and sector trends. If an unemployed person can demonstrate these attributes, she said, “they will appear as valuable as an employed person and help get over that hump that favors the employed candidates.”

If you’ve been looking for work for months, it will be discouraging to hear that things may get still worse before they get better, but that’s all the more reason to ensure that you’re making every effort to fill that resume gap.