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Help for the Long-Term Unemployed

Even if you've taken extended time off, you can still land a great job. Here are four steps to overcoming the gap in your résumé.

You haven't worked in ages. Maybe you took a few years off to raise your child, or to travel. Or you've been searching and searching and still can't land a decent job. In any case, you're worrying, "Will I ever land more than a McJob?"

Although U.S. employment in August fell for the first time in four years, the unemployment rate is still near all-time lows. And even if the job market continues to weaken, following this proven four-step plan will boost your odds of landing a job -- even after an extended absence.

Overcoming the résumé gap

Step 1: Realize this could be an opportunity. If you were considering a career change, now is the time to do it -- you have less to lose than if you were on some career's fast track. Also, because much time has passed, prospective employers may downgrade you less for a past job failure -- as long as you provide sufficient evidence that you'll likely succeed in your new job. Steps 2 through 4 help you to do just that.

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Step 2: Develop a résumé that first catalogs your skills and, only at the end, lists your employment history. If it won't seem hokey, fill in your employment gap with your relevant unpaid experiences. Haven't had any? Consider taking a volunteer position that might impress your prospective employer. For example, could you convince a former colleague to use you as an unpaid consultant?

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Step 3: Develop your 15-second pitch. It must tell a three-part story:

  • Your previous career success

  • A reassuring yet honest reason why you haven't been working for so long

  • The sort of job you're looking for. It's an easier sell if your target job would draw on the same expertise that helped you succeed before.

Here are three examples:

  • I was a systems analyst and got top evaluations. Unfortunately, the company moved its entire IT operation to India. That's been true of many other companies in my industry So, despite strong evaluations and an up-to-date skill set, I haven't been able to find a job that pays decently. I enjoy systems analysis, but will also consider desktop support, which is another strength. Might you know of someone I should talk with?

  • I was an intellectual property lawyer in a major firm, made partner, and all was going well. Then I made the biggest mistake of my life. It's very hard for me to even admit it: I just finished a prison term for embezzling money from a client company. I am terrified that no one will ever hire me again. I am so committed to being totally honest, but I'm scared I'll never convince an employer of that. By any chance, is there someone you think I should talk with?

  • I was on the fast track in hospital administration but took a few years off when my baby was born. My son is now in school and I'm eager to go back to work. I'd like to find a job that uses my management skills, possibly but not necessarily in the health care field. Might you know someone I should talk with?

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Surprisingly, the "raising-a-child" explanation is often tougher to overcome than the "committed-a-crime" explanation. There's a reasonable chance that a person who seems truly apologetic about having committed one crime will be honorable in the future. In contrast, most stay-at-home parents who later decide to get a job feel that their first priority is their children and, as a result, compared with non-parents, work shorter hours, are less likely to devote after-work time to professional development, are less likely to be willing to relocate for a promotion, etc. So the returning-to-work parent must -- if it's true -- be very convincing that they are committed to working as diligently as employees without children. Or that person should seek only part-time work.

Step 4: Deliver your 15-second pitch to 50 people. Contact at least 25 people in your network and at least 25 people with the power to hire you at on-target employers. Your network contacts needn't be close friends nor have great connections. The on-target employers needn't have placed a help-wanted ad. What matters is that you make those 50 pitches. If you're more comfortable writing, pitch in writing. Better on the phone? Do that. But make those 50 contacts; most job seekers fail because they don't.

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Don't send your résumé unless it's asked for -- it will only highlight that you've been unemployed for ages.

Don't waste much time answering ads or contacting recruiters unless you're looking for an entry-level job, are seeking a job for which few people are qualified, or are looking for the same sort of work at which you excelled before your unemployment. If an employer was willing to accept someone inexperienced or who's been out of work for years, he wouldn't have gone through the trouble of placing an ad and having to review stacks of applications, let alone paid a recruiter to find someone like that. She would have asked her employees and friends to refer candidates.

If, despite following the above plan, you can't land an acceptable job, you might consider self-employment. Even if you're not a born entrepreneur, as long as you're a self-starter, the art of running a business can be learned. How? That's next month's column.

Marty Nemko is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

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