How Can I Minimize the Impact of My Extended Unemployment to Get Back to Work?

Donna from DeVry University asks:

“I have been unemployed for two years. What do I say to prospective employers about my unemployment time?”

Thanks for your question, Donna.  The prevailing thought on this is that it is easier to land a job when you are already in a job.  I would agree that this is generally the case, probably because someone who is currently working will likely to project more confidence and less desperation during the hiring process. Plus, employers may feel that a passive candidate (one currently working) is likely to bring polished and “sharp” relevant skills to the job, instead of an unemployed candidate whose skills may be a bit rusty as they aren’t using them daily.

However, there are plenty of people have been out of work by choice, family situation, difficulty or something else who have successfully transitioned back into the workforce.  Let’s start there, so that you can ensure that as you ramp up your campaign, your goal of getting back to work is a realistic one.

The successful attainment of your goal to get back to work will take a solid plan along combined with consistent effort.  In fact, you will likely need to do more to start to build a stronger network and find non-traditional ways to get experience to strengthen your value proposition with a prospective employer.

A good starting point for you is to think of all of the things that you were doing during this two-year period.  Were you taking classes towards a degree?  Were you volunteering in the community?  Did you take any training classes or pursue any certifications?  These are just a few of the questions you’ll need to answer to help you better position this employment gap.

Below are some specific suggestions on how to strengthen the story of your two-year unemployment to help you move towards your goal of landing a job.

Develop the Story for Your Work Gap

Having coached thousands of clients over the last ten years, I recognize that each client’s story is unique and different.  I’ve also worked with numerous clients with a situation like yours to develop a plan to overcome the gap and successfully re-enter the workforce.

It is important that you detail what you were doing during your two-year unemployment.  It is my educated guess that you probably did a number of work-related tasks that may help you show value for what you were doing even though you didn’t report to an employer for work every day.  Start by asking yourself the following questions.  Write out your answers on a sheet of paper or type into a blank Word file:

  • Was I enrolled in college and taking classes towards a college degree or certification?
  • What classes did I (or will I) complete that are relevant towards my targeted career?
  • Did I volunteer in the community at various community events or initiatives?
  • Did I serve on any boards for community, church, school, or volunteer initiatives?
  • If so, what tasks did I complete? How did I help move the mission/vision forward?  What were some specific successes that I contributed towards?
  • Did I complete any online training programs covering topics relative in some way to my career?
  • Did I earn any degrees and/or certifications during this period?
  • Did I help care for any family members? If so, what did I do on a daily basis to assist the family?
  • Did I help a friend’s business in any way as a volunteer? If so, what did I do and what were some skills I strengthened?
  • Did I learn any new skills relevant to my field (or strengthen existing skills)?
  • Did I learn a new language or become conversational in a language?

This is not an all-inclusive list of questions of course.  It is my hope that it will spark your recollection of all the things you likely did that may help strengthen your story as you navigate the job market.

These discoveries through this process can help you update and strengthen your resume.  Additionally, this information will likely help you tell your story on an interview as a prospective employer may ask the question, “What have you been doing during the last two years?”.

Below are examples of both a poor and excellent candidate answer to this question.  So, let’s assume the following candidate facts:  candidate left a staff accountant job to care for a family member for six months, started job search six months ago with limited success (still unemployed after a one year), completed QuickBooks certification, completed free online Excel training, became conversational in Spanish during period.

Candidate answer to the “What have you been doing during this period?” question:

Poor answer:  “Well, I stopped working over a year ago to care for a family member.  I have been looking for a job for over six months.  It is tough out there, so I’ve been working hard at the job search. I hope to find a job soon.”

Good answer:   “Thanks for the question.  I left my job as a Staff Accountant at ABC Company to care for my mother as she experienced a serious health event over a year ago.  I’m the only child and there were no other options, so I stepped up to help her. I ramped up my search to get back doing the work I love, accounting, a few months ago.  During this past year, I took advantage of my time away from work to strengthen my professional skills toolbox.  I took a training course and then successfully earned my QuickBooks professional certification.  Additionally, I took several online Excel training courses to build better skills with Pivot tables and other reporting features.  Lastly, I completed the Rosetta Stone language training and am now conversational in Spanish.  I’m thrilled to report my mom’s health has improved and she no longer requires my daily support as we’ve found her a suitable living situation.  Also, I’m proud to say that I’ve improved many key skills that I use every day and will be a more valuable employee when I start back in an accounting role, like your Staff Accountant position that we are discussing today.”

Contact Your Career Center for Guidance

Colleges and universities offer career preparation services to students at no additional cost.  Simply put, you should leverage your career center as it is a valuable resource.  College career centers are staffed with knowledgeable, skilled, and credentialed professionals who can provide assistance in a variety of areas including resume review, interview skills training, job search strategy, and more.  Your university’s career center can likely provide some further insight into your question about how to position your period of unemployment on your resume and during interviews.  Furthermore, your career center will likely have a job site exclusively for current students and recent alumni featuring jobs and internships posted with the institution. Your university’s career services professionals will be able to provide excellent advice about your immediate question, but can offer so much more as an on-going resource. Initiate contact with this department to set up an appointment.

Putting It All Together

It can be a challenge to land a job even in a strong job market with a great story.  While you have challenges in front of you, the goal of landing a job and getting back to work is a realistic one.  Complete a detailed inventory of the time you were unemployed.  Use this information to help you craft your story both on your resume and during future interviews.  You’ve got this, Donna!

Good luck and best wishes!

Here’s to your success,

Bob Nealon

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About the Author

Photo of Campus Career Coach Bob Nealon

Robert Nealon

For almost 10 years, Bob Nealon has been a South Florida-based career coach, focused on training and coaching college students and professional-level clients to achieve success in their employment search campaign and careers. He has trained over 5,000 clients with strategies on how to best compete in today’s ultra-competitive market to land the job and advance their career. Currently, he is a career coach at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Sports Management from Indiana University, a master’s degree in Sports Administration from Indiana State University and is a multi-credentialed career coach holding industry certifications as a Certified Professional Career Coach, Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Certified Employment Interview Professional, Certified Empowerment and Motivational Coach, Global Career Development Facilitator, and Florida Certified Workforce Professional. He is an active member of Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches, Center for Credentialing and Education, Florida Association of Colleges and Employers, National Association of Colleges and Employers, and National Career Development Association. Connect with Bob via LinkedIn.


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