Returning to Work? How to Handle the Employment Gap

Utilize your volunteer experience to boost your resume and expand your network during the job search.

Q: I haven’t worked outside the home except to volunteer for many years and can’t even get an interview.  I know I can do the job but how do you get that across?  – Doreen M.

A: It can be so frustrating when you know you have value to add to a company but can’t get your foot in the door. Your story is very common with full-time parents who left the corporate world to raise their families and now want (or need) to reenter the workforce, and with those who were laid off and were forced to take on a string of lower-paying jobs to pay the bills. In these situations, I recommend doing two things:

Update your brand

It’s so important to have a resume and online profile that showcase your relevant skill sets and accomplishments, while also showing that you haven’t been twiddling your thumbs since you left the corporate world. Here’s the deal:

  • If your volunteer work (or other recent work experience) can be directly tied back to your targeted job goals, then use a traditional chronological resume format. I don’t care if they didn’t pay you for the work – I care if the experience helped you gain relevant industry experience or build skills that are important to the roles you’re targeting today. Make sure you frame the job description and selected accomplishments with your job goals in mind – the name of the game is relevancy.
  • If your recent work experience doesn’t support your job goals or you have an employment gap due to educational pursuits, sabbaticals, etc., then your best bet is to switch to what we call a “functional” (also known as “hybrid” or “results-oriented”) resume format. In a functional resume, the focus is placed on your relevant experience and the results or accomplishments of that work. You include chronological information and other roles, but those take a back seat so the attention stays on the skill sets and expertise that’s directly related to your targeted job.

I’ll be honest: I’m not the biggest fan of functional resumes, mostly because recruiters seem to prefer the chronological format. However, in this type of situation a functional format will do a much better job at positioning your skills and experience as they relate to your job goals. Click on the following link to learn more about different resume formats.

Invest in your network

Whenever you’re facing challenges in the job search – due to unemployment, career changes, and so forth – networking becomes even more important to your strategy.

The more people you can meet within your desired line of work, the more information you will gain about the marketplace, its main players, and the potential opportunities that are out there. It will help you fine-tune your search to target companies that have the most potential and would be the best fit for you.

You’ll learn how the market has changed since you last worked in it, and if there are any skill gaps you need to fill in order to be more attractive to potential employers. For instance, I worked with a client who was a senior marketing professional in the 90s. When she began looking for work again, it became apparent that she’d need to gain a better understanding of online marketing and ecommerce to compete with other job seekers in her space.

Your contacts can advocate on your behalf and help you by-pass any gatekeepers in the application process. The 2012 CareerXroads Source of Hire Survey found that you are 10 times more likely to land an interview if your application includes an employee referral. The more networking you do, the more likely you are to find people who are willing to pass your application along or allow you to include their name in the application process. And don’t discount the people you’ve met while volunteering! While they may not work in your targeted line of work, who’s to say they don’t have friends or family members who do?