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Don’t Let a Jobless Spell

By Mark Goebel

If it’s been nearly a year since you left your last full-time job, you may be beginning to feel like damaged goods. Hanging over every interview is the dreaded question about why you’ve been out of work so long.
Relax. A long spell of joblessness, even one of a year or more, isn’t the kiss of death it once was. With the right approach, job seekers who have been out of work six months or more can minimize employers’ doubts about their abilities and dramatically improve their chances of winning offers.
You Aren’t the Only One

Kate Wendleton, president of the Five O’Clock Club, a national career-counseling organization, says more job-hunting professionals have longer employment gaps now than at any time in the more than 20-plus years she’s been a career counselor. Many mid- to senior-level executives with specialized skills who are in outplacement also are taking much longer to find full-time work now compared to the late 1990s, says Gina Hall, an Orlando, Fla., consultant for outplacement firm DBM, based in New York.
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics bear out these observations. Last winter, the average length of unemployment peaked at five months and has held steady at this level through May, according to the bureau. By comparison, the average length of unemployment in 1999 was three months, the bureau reports. Says Leo Munoz, a recruiter for Saks Fifth Avenue in New York: “Today it’s generally understood that good people are downsized and may be out of work for an extended period due to circumstances beyond their control.”

No Need for Secrets

The best strategy for job seekers who have been out of work for a long period is get the issue out of the way early.

Lauren McDonald, a business-development director for Advantage Human Resources, a Norwalk, Conn.-based recruiting and HR-consulting firm, tells candidates who have been out of work for more than six months to state in the second paragraph of their cover letters why they have this gap and what they’ve been doing during this time.

“The fact that you’ve been out of work for a while is going to come up eventually. Confronting the issue head-on diffuses it and enables a candidate to focus on what they can bring to an organization,” she says.

“It is important for a candidate to cast their time away from full-time work in a positive light,” says Bill Davis, a legal recruiter in New York. “Prepare in advance for the most difficult question about your gap, and, no matter how long you have been out, don’t be defensive. The more confident you are, the less time the interviewer is going to spend on the issue and the quicker you can move on to discuss other parts of your resume.”

Show You’re Up-to-Date

During their months out of work, job candidates should seek to improve their employment value and then be sure to mention how they’ve kept their skills sharp during interviews.

“Join a work-related association, attend an industry conference, take career-related course work, read trade journals, and, of course, keep networking,” says New York-based career counselor Edward Vladich.

Brad Agry, a principal with Career Team Partners, a New York career-coaching firm, says that describing your job-search efforts to hiring managers also shows you’ve used the time productively. “Employers want to be reassured that job candidates have been doing everything possible to get a job even if it means elaborating — ‘I came close three times to getting a job but was beat out because of X,’ ” he says.

Candidates who are out of work for more than six months should think about doing consulting, part-time or volunteer work. Even projects outside your chosen field will “fill in a gap on your resume, show you have been busy and give you a more recent reference,” says Ms. Hall.

Overcoming long employment gaps may require some creativity. Ms. Wendleton says one job hunter who was out of work for more than a year volunteered to help a large bank on a technology project for a month even though it wasn’t hiring at the time. “He was willing to work for free,” she says. “He got great experience and a reference, which he parlayed into a full-time job with another company, and the bank got free work and didn’t have to go through the all the red tape of hiring him.”

Joe DeRupo, downsized from IBM in early 2002, spent six months seeking full-time work. Then he decided to take a part-time public-relations position with New York City Councilman Alan Gerson. Even though he often worked more than 40 hours a week, he continued to go on informational interviews and joined several work-related associations, including the International Association of Business Communicators, the Public Relations Society of America, and ExecuNet, a networking organization for mid- and senior-level professionals.

The City Council work and association activities on his resume filled in what otherwise would have been a sizable gap. They also apparently reassured employers that he had maintained his professional value. He landed his current position as director of communications for the New York-based National Coffee Association of U.S.A. Inc. in September 2003. “The fact that I was laid off from I.B.M. and had not held a regular full-time position for more than a year hardly came up in my interviews,” he says.

Russ Conway, a professional who overcame two stints of unemployment, was a casualty of the dot-com bust when the sports-memorabilia Web site that he helped launch in 1999 went under in early 2002. He consulted for six months, then searched fruitlessly for another six months — 500 resumes produced not one call — so he decided to take three months off to help raise his kids.

Back to job hunting in March 2003, Mr. Conway rejiggered his resume, putting his pre- and post-dot-com consulting work in two groupings. When submitting applications, he’d follow up with a phone call to the hiring manager to explain his employment gaps. “If you don’t talk to them, you’ll never know what their concerns are,” he says. Mr. Conway found most hiring managers understanding.

The biggest challenge, he says, was convincing potential employers that he’d kept his skills and industry knowledge up-to-date. His strategy worked: In May he landed his current position as a database analyst in Newport, R.I., for SAIC Corp., a research and engineering firm.

— Mr. Goebel is a free-lance writer in New York.

Gary Perman is President of Perman Technical Search Group, a national search firm that specializes in recruiting Executives to Engineers in the technology industry since 1996.
If you have questions about this article, feel free to contact him at [email protected]

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Gary Perman is a certified recruiting professional and owns PermanTech, which specializes in recruiting technology executives, managers and engineers. He hosts an employment-technology blog.

See our Blog for Technology discussions,Interviewing advice, comments relating to IT, Software, Technology issues.