With job ads these days often attracting tens if not hundreds of applications, getting your resume just right, especially when you’re returning to the workforce after a period of unpaid leave, is one of the biggest challenges you will face.
Many people go through periods when they are not employed in the paid workforce, but it is really important that any career gaps in paid employment are accounted for because applicant tracking systems may exclude you from the screening process if you don’t include details of all periods of time.
Employers may also jump to conclusions as to the reasons for the career gaps which may not be in your favour, so the first thing to do is to address the gap.
How do I account for career gaps or time away from paid work?
Think about what you were doing during this period of time (in addition to parenting) to help guide an approach. Think about your time in following categories: care-giving, creative, leadership, self-study or academic, and business.
For example, if you were care-giving:
Did you manage the household and finances?
Did you help anyone other than your immediate family?
Did you take care of anyone outside of your immediate family, such as elderly neighbours or ailing relatives?
Self-study or academic:
Did you learn anything new? If you took classes, what were your subjects, grades, major projects, and academic achievements (or those of the children you were caring for)?
Did you take online or community education courses?
Did you read books relevant to your profession?
Did you create anything?
Did you make crafts and sell them on eBay, Etsy, or the local craft fairs?
Did you pursue any hobbies?
Did you volunteer your time or skills?
Did you lead any groups or activities?
Did you volunteer for a role with the school’s P&C?
Did you manage any people, activities, systems, or information?
Did you project manage a household renovation project?
Did you do some consulting work, such as helping a friend or neighbour with business or technology needs? Money doesn’t have to change hands to be legitimate consulting.
Remember, these accomplishments don’t have to necessarily all come from your most recent role, or from paid employment at all. Outcomes achieved through volunteer work or hobbies definitely count!
Once you have some achievements picked out, the next step is to frame them in a way that will appeal to recruiters. Here is one way you can do this:
Include CAR statements
CAR stands for Challenge, Action, Results and this simple format enables you frame your achievements in a way that makes it really clear to recruiters what you’ve done. To give this a try, pick one of your achievements and write down the following:
Challenge – What was the problem you had to resolve or the challenge that you faced?
Action – What action did you take to overcome the challenge and why?
Results – What was the outcome of the actions you took?
However you choose to frame it, it’s essential that when you’re writing about achievements you make them specific and wherever possible, quantifiable. Avoid vague statements and try to put your results in context by explaining what the outcome meant as a whole.
What should I do now?
Check over your resume – is it mostly a list of your experience and responsibilities? If so try writing a results section (ideally placed on the front page of your resume, so it’s easy for recruiters to spot at a quick glance) using the ideas listed above. Add some achievements, turn them into CAR statements and include them in your next job application.
Every CV and cover letter should be tailored to the job you are applying for. Always include relevant skills and experience and make sure your achievements align with the role you are applying for.
It may sound simple enough but tweaking your CV to highlight your achievements will significantly boost your chances of landing an interview and getting one step closer to the job of your dreams.
Have you got a question about returning to work and career gaps?
Email your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you, as well as post your query and our response here.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION from NC of VIC: So many great ideas. I’m never sure how to word home project management on a resume. We built our own house and that involved a good deal of management and planning.
RESPONSE by CV Saviour: That’s a great one! So many options here … Project managed a $WK construction project, managed X trades comprising Y individuals over Z months while juggling competing priorities (ie: family!). Shaved $A of costs, bringing the project in on time, and under budget. (Assuming that’s true, of course!) I hope you get my drift though …
QUESTION from AB of NSW: How long should a cover letter be? I have been told to many times – just enough to ‘sell yourself’ Spelling mistakes got me when I was in the workforce.
Is it worth getting a professional to do your CV – Achievements are very tough – just small things that are everyday – they can be an achievement.
I am finding it very tough. Also tough what to list as duties in CV.
RESPONSE by CV Saviour: You’re right, in that just like a resume, a cover letter needs to be as long as it needs to be to get your message across, and to respond to the criteria listed in the job advertisement. Generally, the standard is a one-page cover letter.
A great way to write a cover letter and get an employer’s attention is with a ‘pain’ letter – if you know what gives them the biggest grief or what their biggest problem is, tell them how you’re going to solve that problem for them, and use an example of how you’ve resolved a similar problem in a past role.
And yes – writing a resume if hard! So employing a professional resume writer will certainly make it easier. (I’m biased though, of course, because it’s what I do for my job!)
Achievements are generally things that helped the business – whether you saved time, saved money, increased efficiency, improved production – whatever it is, everyone will have something in their jobs that will count as an achievement or something that created an outcome that helped the business.
As for duties, most people have 3 – 5 key business activities or processes that they perform in their role. These are the things that they MUST do to ensure the business continues to operate effectively. Examples of key business activities for an accounts person may include: client billing, payroll, reporting, data extraction, and analysis. Most of the time, your job title will give a recruiter a pretty good idea of what you do, so you should use the space on your resume to detail the results you achieved by performing those key businesses activities. No recruiter wants to read a laundry list of every task you performed every day, or read through what looks like a job description. A very brief explanation or a few bullet points explaining key business processes is generally enough.
FEEDBACK from KR of QLD: This is a very helpful article … resumes terrify me!
RESPONSE by CV Saviour: Hoping these extra tips takes some of terror away then …
You can also use the following acronyms to help …
S = the SITUATION (for example, the situation in which you found yourself on day one of the situation you were in).
O = OPPORTUNITIES (for example, the opportunities you identified to help).
A = ACTION (for example, the plan or strategy you implemented to reach that goal).
R = RESULTS of your actions
W = WHAT you did at work, a volunteer activity, or school-related activities
H = HOW you did the work, and what skills you used.
O = What the OUTCOME was. If you struggle to quantify or qualify results, think about what you learnt from the experience, what you contributed, or what was gained by doing the work or helping.
FEEDBACK from CM of QLD: What if I need references and I’ve been away from the workforce for years?
RESPONSE by CV Saviour: Yes, referees are usually asked for from your most recent employer, but if you’ve been away from the paid workforce for years, that does get tricky. I’d tackle seeking referees the same way I’d tackle explaining what I’ve done while I’ve been out of the paid workforce.
For example, if you helped out at the school canteen, could one of your fellow volunteers could vouch for your timeliness, your care and accuracy with handling cash and finances, or how productive you were while they worked alongside you? Perhaps you organised something at pre-school? Could the pre-school teachers vouch for your organisational skills, or the skills you displayed while communicating and coordinating the event? Did you help care for another Mum’s children on occasion along with your own? Or organise and host regular playdates? Refer to the all the above examples that could account for your time away from the paid workforce, choose an example, and then think about how you helped, who you coordinated with, volunteered alongside or for, and then shortlist those to identify people who you could approach as referees for you to talk to the skills you have that are required for the job that you seek.
Another great way to handle references is to create a resume that includes an excerpt of feedback you’ve received from someone in relation to something you’ve done for them. This ‘social proof’ may negate the requirement for formal references to be provided if handled appropriately.
As for listing referees on your resume … We generally advise not to include referee contact details, or dedicate any space to referees on request. Why? Because it’s understood that subsequent to a job offer, referees would be sought, and this space may well be better used ‘selling’ your skills. We have also heard of isolated incidents where referees have been contacted during the screening process, and prior to the candidate even being asked for interview, and in one case, the candidate didn’t even get asked to interview because of what was divulged by the unprepared referee.
Wherever possible, your referees should be fully briefed about the specifics of a role you have been shortlisted for, and you should select the best referee to talk to those skills at that time. Of course when a job specifically requests that referee details are included with your application (as is often the case in public sector applications and contracting trades roles), they should be.