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How to deal with gaps in your résumé

As many people hit by layoffs in this economy find the search for new work taking longer, experts offer advice on how to deal with gaps between jobs and the bigger blanks on their résumés.

As Bryan Webb’s search for employment dragged on for almost a year, he got some heavy grilling from hiring managers about the growing gap in his job history.

“I’d get questions like: ‘How come you’re still unemployed if you’re so good?’ “ recalls Mr. Webb, who lost his job as a sales manager for an electronics company last April, after his employer was bought by a U.S. company and Canadian operations were downsized.

“It’s almost as though they are kicking you when you’re down.”

It’s the kind of question that a lot of Canadians may be hearing these days as many people hit by layoffs in this economy count the growing number of months they continue to pound the pavement in search of a new job.

About one in five unemployed Canadians has been without work for at least six months, according to a Statistics Canada labour survey in March. That’s double the one in 10 in the same situation at the same time last year.

As well, the average duration of joblessness rose to 19.1 weeks in February, up from 14.3 weeks at the same time last year and higher than any yearly average since 2000, according to Statscan.

That means many people are finding themselves in the position of having to explain an increasingly long gap in their résumé, which only adds to the difficulty of finding a new job.

And it’s not just victims of layoffs. Those who took time out to raise children or retrain, for instance, may now also find the search to get back to work taking longer in a tough economy.

But it’s not insurmountable. Mr. Webb’s frustrating year of job hunting finally ended last month when he started a new job as president of Brock Scientific Inc. in Thorold, Ont.

His approach to constructively find ways to fill a long unemployment gap and turn the experience to advantage can offer many lessons other job seekers can learn from, experts say. Here are some of the ways to deal with a long job hunt:

Don’t despair

Frustrating as an extended search may be, it’s important to remain upbeat if you want to convince a potential employer that you’re a prime candidate, the experts say.

There’s good news in that “job gaps have become so common that potential employers are more willing to cut people more slack this year,” says Tom Long, managing director of recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates Inc. in Toronto.

“Everybody understands what the past two years have been like. In fact, employers themselves realize that they are a major reason why searches are taking longer. At the senior level especially, organizations have been waiting, before they commit to making a hire, until they have proof that the economic recovery is real.”

A recent survey of 100 senior executives in Canada by staffing service Robert Half International bears that out. The average time that a candidate for a management role could be out of work without raising questions is nine months, up from six before the recession, the survey found.

Executives holding out for six-figure jobs shouldn’t get discouraged, even if the search extends for a year – double or more the time it would have taken two years ago, says Anthony Kaul, founder of online executive search site Higher Bracket.ca.

“The rule of thumb for high-paying jobs these days is that you should expect your projected search to take a month for each extra $10,000 more than $50,000 that you hope to get in salary,” he says.

Fill the void productively

Despite the higher acceptance of career gaps, “a long one still raises eyebrows if candidates can’t demonstrate that they have stayed active in the time away from the work force 

that they have kept up with the industry and have not let their skills get rusty,” warns career coach Martin Buckland, president of Elite Résumés in Oakville, Ont.

He recommends that candidates fill as much of their time out of work doing career-related activities, including freelancing, serving on boards, attending industry events and upgrading skills. “That all counts as work experience,” he says.

Taking a short-term contract job, even if it is unlikely to lead to a permanent position, can also be a smart strategy, Mr. Long says. Not only will temporary work bring in some income, it will show that you are staying active and gaining experience, he says.

However, if a full-time job is your objective, limit your contract work to one or two three-month terms, he advises.

“You don’t want to stereotype yourself as a hired gun who can be called in but then let go.”

Spin your story

Even if much of what you’ve done in your time out of the work force has not been professionally related, you can connect other life experiences to enhancing your expertise, says Mary Heisz, director of ReConnect, a course at University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business for professional women re-entering the work force after a gap of two or more years.

For instance, for women who stayed home to care for children or nurse an aging parent, “I suggest reframing the activities as stories of experiences that taught you a lot about time management and multitasking.”

Many women – and men – who stepped out of professional jobs forget to raise continuing activity on business or community committees or volunteer work during their career hiatus, she says.

“You can’t take for granted that being involved in organizing or fundraising for a non-profit or church group, or continuing work on a board or community association was just something you did on the side. Write out the skills you were using, list them in your résumé and talk about them in interviews,” Ms. Heisz advises.

Control what you can

To all those who asked about why his search was taking so long, Mr. Webb’s ready and upfront response was: “The economy and the job market are the cause. Those are things I can’t control,” he says.

But then he would add a kicker: “There are things I can control, and I’ve been continuing to keep up with the industry by sitting on a board and keeping active by doing volunteer work.” Then he’d turn the conversation to how those experiences made him valuable to a new employer.

Get support

“When you’re out for that long, I don’t care who you are – your ego is going to take a hit,” Mr. Webb says. “What you don’t want to do is hang around feeling sorry for yourself. You want to get support from people who are upbeat.”

In addition to devoting a couple of hours each day to making networking calls and meeting with former colleagues, he joined a support group for executives in transition. The organization, Happen, has several chapters in Toronto and Vancouver that conduct weekly meetings.

“There were always people there who had been looking longer than I was,” Mr. Webb says. But the discussions were always upbeat and the jobless execs shared tips and job leads. “I came away from those meetings feeling enthusiastic and saying, ‘The next interview will be the one,’ “ he says.

Now that his search has finally ended, Mr. Webb says that, “without a doubt this is the toughest I’ve ever seen the job market.

“It was a long tough road, and it’s good to finally reach my destination.”

Re-entry: More tips from the experts

Invest in skills upgrading: Staying up to date and having certifications demonstrates initiative and makes you more valuable.

Attend industry events: Staying in touch socially and professionally is a great confidence-builder and highlights your enthusiasm.

Volunteer: Non-profits are great networking opportunities, and organizing and fund-raising count as work experience.

Learn from the experience: Coming up with lessons learned from non-work activities can be ways that you can show you’ve gained insights from your time away from the work force.

Hone your pitch: Ask friends in your industry or a career coach for advice on how to come across as confident when explaining your experiences in an interview.

Be personal: Your chances of finding a job that isn’t being advertised expand when you network face-to-face rather than by computer.

Be flexible: In this tight market, you may not find a job that is an exact match with the one you held before. Broaden your search and come up with ways to show how your skills can be transferred.

Be a quick study: Demonstrate you are aware of the pressing issues of the field you want to re-enter. The Internet and networking can be great ways to gain the knowledge.

Stay positive: Don’t get discouraged by a few rejections. Everyone is facing a longer job search.

This report by Wallace Immen was published in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday May 5, 2010.

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