Employment gaps are not career killers.
This was the general gist of Suzanna Borst's workshop at the Resume Writing Event hosted by PrimeTime Singapore at the Caribbean at Keppel Bay on 27 September.
I’m trying to get back to the corporate world after taking a sabbatical for close to 2 years.
Unlike many who took time off paid work to take care of an ailing family member or who went on maternity leave, I didn’t do any of those things. I took a break because I followed my husband to another country — the US.
It took months before I received my work permit, then a few more weeks before I got my social security number. I didn’t twiddle my thumb. In the meantime, I had to learn how to drive to get my Massachusetts driver’s license. I set up my own writing business and I wrote a novel, which I am now shopping around. I also joined 3 Toastmasters clubs to hone my speaking skills.
I was getting comfortable in Boston when we had to move again, this time to Singapore.
Due to legal restrictions, I can’t set up my own business. Not right now. If I want to earn my own money, I had to get a job. Time to polish off my resume. That’s when the glaring gap stared at me.
How do I explain the nearly 2-year gap? Would companies even bother looking at my previous employment? Should I provide an explanation on my resume? All these questions ran through my head. I felt a small degree of anxiety but I didn’t let it overwhelm me.
As if the universe heard me, I stumbled on a workshop that exactly addressed this concern. Suzanna Borst, the speaker, didn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of getting back to work after taking time off but she also gave practical advice. She had 17 years of experience in recruitment in both Asia and the United States and her advice, I believe, could be applied in any country.
I sifted through my notes and below were my key takeaways.
Focus on your Strengths, Experience, and Education
What makes you you? What makes you stand out from among the rest of job seekers? Even if you didn’t finish a degree, put it down to show your educational background. Include certifications if you have any.
Just because you’ve been out of the job market, it doesn’t mean your skills have disappeared. Identify the hard skills. If you’ve been doing volunteer work and have been great at organizing events, that’s a skill. If you managed the finances of an organization, write that down. If you had leadership roles, include them.
Don’t discount writing a book or a blog as that displays a strong communication skill, a hard skill that can be highlighted.
Write a High Impact Summary
What kind of work do you want to do? Do you want to go back to the same industry or are you changing careers? Be clear about your career goal and define yourself through a high impact summary.
“Tailor the summary to what (company or recruiter) is looking for and hook them quickly in 3 to 4 sentences. Talk about the specific aspects of your previous experiences,” Suzanna advised. “If you’re blocked, write the summary last.”
Highlight the Relevant Experiences
The last 10 years are important. Describe the company, the role, the reporting structure. Quantify your achievements, if possible. Example: Increased sales by 40% for the department, double the set target.
If the company was acquired or sold, use the name of the company prior to the acquisition then mention the new name. Example: Worked for Continental (merged with United)
Volunteer experience counts, but not just any type of volunteer experience. Showing up at a soup kitchen once a month is not the same as helping organize a charity event or a workshop. There must be a clear and progressive involvement.
De-emphasize the Dates
If you’ve been job hopping, focus on the roles and achievements. Place the dates on the right, instead of the left, as the eyes generally begin scanning from the left. Studies have shown that the human eyes track printed items (without visuals) on a Z or an F pattern.
Jumping in the job market pool after a prolonged absence can be daunting but the employment gap doesn’t have to be the focus of your resume. Instead, focus on what you can offer.
With those things in mind, I tailored my resume and sent them off. Out of the 10 I sent out, I’ve had one interview so far. I’m not letting this 10% conversion rate deter me. I actually consider it a success considering how many of the people spoke to here said they don’t hear back from companies.
It’s a competitive job market out there and if you’re on the same boat as I am, don't get despondent. Instead focus on being out there. Keep yourself busy by attending workshops or joining volunteer groups. Smile and be positive.