Trying to Get Back to Work After a Gap in Employment

Ryan Kay Star

Ryan Kay

ryank@refer.io

How to get back in the job market and thriving in no time!

Heaven bless you for getting yourself back in the job market during this post-2020 work era! I imagine you are feeling nervous or afraid about what kinds of job prospects actually await you.

Well I have good news, there are in fact A LOT of opportunities for those who are ready and willing to grab them.

The struggle I see among a lot of people that are re-entering the workforce, especially if they’ve been out of it for a long time, is that they have lost touch with what sets them apart as a job candidate.

We’ve all been given the advice to not have large gaps of unemployment on our resume, but sometimes life circumstances make that impossible. You might be feeling that you are completely out of “the know” with what is even going on in your industry--or maybe you want to start over in a completely different industry!

I’M HERE TO HELP YOU!!!!

Before I give you some of the best advice I have--advice that can actually help you navigate to where it is you are trying to go: land a solid job and build a real, meaningful career--I need to separate you into one of two categories:

Category One: I took a break from the workforce, and now I want to get back into my original industry - You spent time perfecting your craft but had to take time out from work for a period, you now wonder how to get back into the swing of things. You may be asking yourself--how much has changed?

Category Two: I took a break from the workforce, and now I want to get into a new industry - Perhaps the break you took from work was more welcomed than you originally thought. You’ve realized that you weren’t happy at what you were previously doing, and now that it is time to get back to work--you want a serious change!

First things first, don’t hesitate to utilize some of the resources your state may provide in helping you secure employment

The National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA) provides a list of what resources are available to you based on which state you live in. “These agencies deliver training, employment, career, and business services, in addition to administering the unemployment insurance, veteran reemployment, and labor market information programs.” [*] Here is a list of all the different agencies.

Seek out what information and resources they can provide you AND take the following tips. You’ll find a great job in no time! Category One, read on! Category Two--skip to the end.

A lot has changed in the work-world (especially the world of hiring) over the last few years. As you are reentering the job market, I have no idea how long you have been out of it! With that said, the best advice I can give you, with the current state of things, is that you need to have a personal brand, revamp your resume (finding out what current knowledge and skills your industry now requires, then finding the best way, according to your circumstances, to get them), build on previous work experience, and rebuilding your network.

Have a Personal Brand

What do I mean by “have a personal brand?!” Bear with me on this example:

Imagine that you went to the dentist, and they told you that your enamel is looking weak and that they recommend you get an enamel-rebuilding toothpaste. So you go to the store and are shocked to find that EVERY toothpaste in the whole aisle says the same thing on its box: “Minty fresh breath guaranteed.”

How are you supposed to know which one to pick?

In reality, when you walk down the toothpaste aisle you get to choose from tartar control, whitening, anti-cavity, gum protection, enamel-strengthening, sensitive teeth--and the list goes on and on! You get to pick a toothpaste based on your needs and its ability to sell you on it’s benefits.

Having a personal branding is knowing what sets you apart in the job market (and your industry) and how to “package it up.” Another way you could phrase this is: what unique benefit do I have to offer? Every company has needs--that’s what the job description is--a company describing a specific need. Your benefit is how you uniquely can fill that need.

In today’s job market, you need to have and know what your “brand” or unique benefit is so that you can correctly “sell” yourself to the hiring managers of today. When a person fills out a job application, they are essentially saying pick me to meet your need. Or, I have the benefit that will meet your need.

What I’m trying to say is that in today’s world of work it is now obsolete when a candidate says, “I am good at working with people.” That is like toothpaste boxes saying they guarantee to freshen your breath. You need to be able to help a company understand what sets you apart (how YOU, specifically, would benefit them).

How to Brand Yourself

If the concept of having to do this sounds totally foreign to you, trust me, you’re not alone.

It’s the generation that grew up with the internet since infancy, the ones who are active on every social media network and have their own Youtube channel with followers that most understand this concept.

Here is a really simple way of thinking about branding yourself:

In the world of branding (purely from a product going to market standpoint) the people creating the product have to know how to talk about and package that product so that when they market it to the general public, people in fact feel that they are getting something unique. This is called brand positioning. It’s why there are so many different “kinds” of water on the market!

Debbie Millman, chair, cofounder, and professor of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, defines branding as “Deliberate Differentiation.”

One way you can deliberately differentiate yourself from other job candidates is by creating your personal mission statement. What in your industry are you seeking to do? Or as Debbie puts it, your mission statement is “your unique beliefs and benefits, stated with stature and sincerity.”

I have a friend who is a wellness coach. Her personal mission statement is “I seek to empower individuals with the knowledge and skills to live happy, healthy lives.” When Debbie was entering the workforce as a graphic designer years ago, her mission statement was “I seek to make the supermarket more beautiful.” [*]

One version of my mission statement is “I use my knowledge, skills, and creativity to mentor job seekers in building successful careers.” For me, I define successful careers as meaningful work, good money, and work/life balance. My favorite people to help are underdogs and single parents.

What do you seek to do? How do you uniquely benefit your industry?

Once you know the answers to those questions, you can use them to create your public persona. One of the best places to start is LinkedIn (an online network platform for people actively in the workforce).

Places and Ways to Begin Branding Yourself:

  1. Write your elevator pitch and personal mission statement.
  2. Use that pitch and your personal mission statement to start or update your LinkedIn profile. Craft these elements into your About you section.
  3. Update your professional outfit. I don’t know when you last had to wear a suit or pencil skirt and polished shoes, but chances are, what you used to wear to work (or for an interview) may need updating. Make sure that your clothing reflects the brand you are trying to portray.
  4. Be honest with yourself about your hair (including facial hair), make-up, nails, general appearance, etc.--and if they reflect the right image you are going for. Does your physical brand say what you want it to say?
  5. Once you’ve updated your outfit and physical appearance, get a professional headshot taken (if you can’t afford this, get in some good lighting and have someone take the best shot they can of you with their smartphone). Choose plain/simple backgrounds.
  6. Select a cover photo that helps speak to your brand that you can use along with your headshot. Use these images (headshot and cover photo) for LinkedIn and other social media accounts. (Potential employers these days do run Google searches, and you want everything out there to reflect your best brand and image.)

Revamp Your Resume

The word resume literally means “to sum up.” You may be feeling nervous about how you are going to “sum up” that gap in your employment! For now, don’t be overly concerned with that.

What we want to do is take what experience you do have (not overlooking things like volunteering or community service), find out what skills you are missing, and rebuild/reinforce where necessary. Believe it or not, having a strong personal brand (knowing the exact value that you can bring to any company or job) can make up for that gap in employment--and then some!

Reconsider the Structure and Format of Your Resume

In today’s world of hiring, there is software that many companies (depending on the size of the company) send resumes through electronically before they get to a physical person. These are known as Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). To “beat” the ATS, it is important to structure and format your resume in a specific way.

Depending on how big your gap of unemployment was, you will want to go with either a reverse-chronological (also called chronological) or hybrid (also called combination) resume format. You can find a template through Microsoft Word or online. You may be tempted to use a functional resume format. I’d avoid this if you can. For some extra resumé help, visit this link.

Delete all headers, footers, and tables; the ATS doesn’t like them, and they can throw off the software. The ATS favors normal, standardized fonts (Times New Roman, Garamond, Georgia, etc.). Use abbreviated and fully written out terminology for skills and degrees. Save in .docx or .pdf format. For more info on applicant tracking systems and how they work.

Choose the Right Words for Your Resume

ALWAYS use keywords (the words, skills, terms that are used the most in a job description) in your resume. This means that you will likely need to sculpt each resume with each job you apply for.

Use present tense verbs for current experience (even if it is volunteering or community service) and past tense action verbs to describe your skills and accomplishments. Here are some great suggestions of action verbs to use.

How to Select Skills to Include on Your Resume

Find out what you’ve “missed” and educate yourself on what has changed industry-wide

Since you’ve been gone (no Kelly Clarkson pun intended) what has changed in your industry? What has been automated? Are there new technologies? Are there certain kinds of software they are using now? Follow industry experts, read their blogs, listen to their podcasts, get their books, and find out.

Gain the skill sets needed to be on par and competitive in the current job market

One of the quickest ways to figure out what skills (and experience) you need to have in order to be up-to-date, is by looking up people on LinkedIn who currently are doing the positions you are applying for. What knowledge, skills, and experience do they have? Are there ways that fit with your circumstances that you can get those same or similar credentials? What Transferable skills do you have? Don’t overlook those!

There are a lot of ways to gain skill sets nowadays that don’t require going back to school. RResources like Hubspot Academy, W3Schools, and Udemy are just a few options of online resources that offer courses and certificates to get you the skills you need--often for free or at a minimal cost!

According to Kerri Twigg, international career coach, when it comes to the work of the future, "collaboration, creativity, communication, [and] solving problems" are four soft skills that are needed. [*]

Indeed.com lists the following as the most sought after hard and soft skills in the current job market (understand that some of these are only relevant to certain industries):

Hard skills: bilingual or multilingual, database management, Adobe software suite, network security, SEO/SEM marketing, statistical analysis, data mining, mobile development, user interface design, marketing campaign management, storage systems and management, and programming languages (such as Perl, Python, Java, and Ruby).

Soft skills: integrity, dependability, effective communication, open-mindedness, teamwork, creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, adaptability, organization, willingness to learn, and empathy. [*]

*You can always run a Google search or look up profiles of individuals on LinkedIn to find out what skills are most relevant to your industry and jobs you are applying for.

Build on Previous Work Experience

Until you naturally build up more “work” experience, you can use this section to highlight any types of experience where you have gained meaningful skills that can contribute to the company and position you are applying for. In addition to including your previous work experience, this can include volunteering, work you have done with church or community, side projects you have coordinated, and a lot more.

The trick is in “how” you talk about them. Don’t downplay that you are constantly using your ability to lead, organize, and effectively delegate and communicate. Maybe not in a traditional office, but definitely in your community.

When you are writing about your experience on your resume, hard facts and numbers are great things to include if you have them (donations you gathered for a service project, number of attendees you were able to get to support an event, etc.).

Until you secure full-time employment, be open to part-time, temporary, or freelance opportunities (even internships!) to build up more current work experience.

Rebuild Your Network

Many people find their next employment opportunity through their network. Since you previously worked in the same industry, you still have connections to people who are likely still working in it.

Reconnect with your previous work colleagues.

When you do this (depending on the relationship) you can let them know you are looking to get back into the industry or simply say hello, offer a compliment on what you appreciated about working with them in the past, and ask for an update and where they have been/what they have been up to. What you say will depend entirely on the nature of your former relationship.

GET ON LINKEDIN!

So you have updated your resume to the best of your ability. If you did not have a LinkedIn account previously, now is a great time to.

Steps for Creating a LinkedIn Profile and Network:

  1. Upload your quality headshot (and cover photo).
  2. Fill out your About section (pulling from your personal mission statement and elevator pitch).
  3. Copy over your skills--hard and soft.
  4. Copy over your educational, work, and other experience.
  5. Now, start adding connections! Look up former work colleagues. Connect with them, but also connect with friends and neighbors.
  6. Go and endorse these individuals in the skills that they have put on their profiles. Ask them to endorse your skills.
  7. Reach out to former colleagues and associates from the community that you know would write a solid recommendation for you. You can specify which projects or skills you want them to talk about in the recommendations. (A LinkedIn recommendation can be a paragraph or more; it doesn’t need to be a full length letter).
  8. Follow companies and individuals you may be interested in working with or learning from.
  9. To build your network more: Join industry groups on Linkedin (Facebook, and other social media) and engage with them.

*Rebuilding your professional network takes time, but never hesitate to reach out and connect with people who genuinely interest you.

I have a friend who told me that the last two job offers she received were through LinkedIn connections that saw her profile. This stuff really does work! If any former colleagues or connections are working at companies that would interest you (and it feels appropriate) ask them if they know of openings or have suggestions for ways to get your foot in the door.

There are a lot of ways to find great jobs; don’t overlook reaching out to people in your online and physical networks as a means to get leads. With that said, also recognize that if they don’t have an opening to do exactly what you would like to do, you can work your way up with many companies, as well as transition over to a different department.

I know a guy who started as a customer service rep at a tech company that his friend already worked at. He let them know about his experience with computers, and over time he sought out promotions. Now, a few years in the future, he runs their entire network and IT department. Often, just getting in with the company is the trickiest part.

When it comes to hearing about the latest and best openings, you need to make sure people in your network know you are actively looking, as well as sign-up to receive job alerts!

A Few Tips on Applying and Interviewing

As you are making the effort to gain all relevant skills for your industry, you don’t want to be overlooked in just how viable of a candidate you are. That is why you may want to consider your methods of applying.

Yes, there are the “traditional'' (in our modern world) ways of applying by shipping off your application electronically, but there are still industries, and companies in those industries, where it still makes sense to physically drop off your resume and cover letter in person. You may also want to decide if finding out who the hiring manager is, and then directly messaging them, is in your best interest.

If it feels right, skip out on applying online and go straight to the hiring manager

The reason I would give you this piece of advice is because that human-to-human contact may be exactly what YOU need to get your foot in the door. You can either stop by in person or get a hold of their email address. This gives you a personable opportunity to share your own unique value you would be capable of bringing to them (your personality is more important than written skills in so many types of work!), and briefly explain about the gap in time in your employment history.

Look up the company and their mission--craft elements of how you value and are passionate about the same things into your resume and cover letter

It is still appropriate to follow-up on jobs you have applied for

Typically, a week after applying is an appropriate amount of time to check on the status of your application and thank them for reviewing it.

Print yourself off a calendar and literally mark on it dates you applied, closing dates of positions, and follow-up dates--a specific day that you will reach out to a hiring manager, recruiter, or HR department to follow-up about the job.

To refresh your interviewing skills and abilities, practice!

Google search for good practice interview questions specific to your industry, then ask a friend or family member to practice asking you them. Take feedback that they give you.

Focus on things like eye contact, body language, not rushing your responses (formulating answers), and feeling natural/at ease. Dr. Amy Cuddy, a Social Psychologist at Harvard Business School, studied the effect of body language on our confidence both going into and during interviews. Here is a reader's digest version of some of her suggestions: tips on great body language for interviewing.

Know how to share your strengths in the interview

Before an actual interview, review the job description/ad again. Have examples ready to go of the skills they are looking for. A great way to prep for this is the “The Career Stories Method” by Kerry Twigg. Write out on note cards the story that answers the question, “What am I the most proud of doing in my previous job?” (or you could write about an experience in the community or volunteering). After leaving that story alone for a time, come back and reread it. Flip the note card(s) over and write what strengths you have that were illustrated by that story. [*]

This will be a great example you can share/use in the interview to illustrate who you are and how you could benefit their company or team.

Research the company and their mission before the interview

Go on their website and read the About page; learn about how they started and what they are trying to do. Come to the interview with two questions in mind that you want to know more about regarding their company and mission. There will likely be natural points in the interview where you can ask them--such as when they say, “Do you have any questions for us?”

Remember, when they wrote the job ad they were essentially describing “a problem” or need that they are trying to solve. How are you going to best position yourself in that interview as “their solution?” Paint the picture of how you personally can help solve their problem.

Once they offer you the job, check out this article (and my others about starting your new job): How to Prepare BEFORE Starting Your New Job.

Advice for Category Two: Those Who Took a Break From the Workforce, and Now Want to Get Into a New Industry

Take stock of your transferable skills

Transferable skills (especially soft skills) can serve you in a variety of industries. You just need to figure out what some of the best industries are for you--taking into account your personality and interests.

When I graduated college, it was actually in accounting. The truth is, I was under engaged at work and frustrated that I was employed in a position and industry that didn’t really speak to me. It took some exploration to figure out where I was meant to be.

Check out some of these resources:

Ask yourself: “Who do I know that works in the other industries I’m considering?”

Conduct an informal interview with them. Use this more as a way to find out about if the industry and types of jobs in it are a good fit for you.

If you don’t love what you were doing before, ask yourself, “Is now the right time to change industries?”

Maybe based on your circumstances, the correct answer is keep working in your original industry while you equip yourself with other skills to change industries in the near future. Consider getting a job doing something similar to what you did in the past while you develop skills on the side to make a change.

Consider applying to companies with varying departments, where you can start somewhere you are familiar and transition over in time

Is there a company where you could literally prep yourself to move departments while doing the position you are familiar and skilled with/in?

Know yourself and interests, research alternate paths to get yourself there

You don’t always need to go back to school. There are other paths to the same or similar destination.

Gaining more self-knowledge will help you pick an industry to work in and jobs to apply for

Here are resources to help you understand your innate gifts, talents, strengths, weaknesses, preferences, personality, and ways of thinking.

Once you have done some self-reflection, read the advice I gave to Category One job seekers. There are a lot of resources out there to get yourself trained, skilled, and hirable in a number of industries--whether you have any experience in them or not!

Wishing you every good thing as you put your best foot forward! As always, I’m here. Shoot me your questions so I can help!

-Ryan