Explaining why you’ve been out of work for months

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Unemployed MBA grad

Finding a new job on Wall Street or in the City is no easy task, particularly when you have been out of the workforce for months. Employers and recruiters notice those gaping holes in your resume. Such gaps aren’t a death sentence – you just need the right answers and a confident attitude.

Be Confident – You’re Not Alone

First, remember the stats. The six largest U.S. banks announced roughly 21,000 job cuts through the first three months of 2013 and finance firms have cut more than 114,000 jobs globally over the past year. You aren’t alone and the banks know it.  “If you had an employment gap [on Wall Street] six years ago, it almost seemed as if you were damaged goods, even if the reason was understandable,” said Jesse Marrus, founder of Wall Street career search firm StreetID. With layoffs so prevalent, employers in financial services have come to expect it, he said.

Thus, there’s no reason to apologize for a stretch of joblessness. “With all of the upheavals we've seen in the job market, having employment gaps is certainly not rare - it needn't be fatal,” said Liz Colodny, president of Synergy HR Partners, Inc. Don’t let your situation affect your sense of self-worth.

Fix Your Resume

Make sure your resume reflects your years of employment, not months, said Roy Cohen, a finance-focused career coach and author of “The Wall Street Professionals’ Survival Guide.” When you list your job experience, say 2012, not January 2012 to November 2012.

“You are not misleading anyone,” said Marrus. “If they’re not asking for specific months, don’t give them out.”

That said, never lie about dates on your resume. Don’t say you were laid off in 2011 if you left in November of 2010. Being untruthful can come back to haunt you. Dates of employment are usually verified through background checks, said Colodny. “You do want to make sure that your story syncs up with what your references will say,” she added. “Discrepancies will be big red flags on your candidacy.”

If you’ve received additional training during your time away, reorder your resume to lead with that experience, said Cohen. This will fill the gap, so to speak.

If you’ve been out of work for just a few months, or if the gap in employment isn’t current, there is no need to explain it on your resume or in your cover letter. Once you have been out a year, however, a recruiter or hiring manager will wonder about your employability, said Marrus. So be proactive on your resume. If you left a job due to a mass layoff, explain that directly in one of the bullet points listed under the job. “Give context, as long as separation isn’t embarrassing,” Cohen said.

If there is a more in-depth story behind your departure, explain it in a cover letter or in the body of an email, Marrus said. If you wait for the interview, you will sound defensive, said Cohen.

The Interview

No matter why you’re unemployed, you’ll need answers for what you have been doing with your time away from the workforce, assuming you score an interview. The most common mistake candidates make is explaining that all they’ve been doing is looking for work.

“It makes a difference if you can do something to account for the time,” said Peter Laughter, CEO at New York recruiting firm Wall Street Services. Look for opportunities to list what you were doing – maybe you learned a language, took the CFA exam or volunteered. “When hiring managers know that you were doing something valuable with your time the gaps are less painful,” Laughter said.

Jill Lauri, a consultant, trainer and psychotherapist specializing in career management, suggests jotting down a list of three things you accomplished during your time away from work that you’re proud of. This should instill self-confidence as well as provide a few talking points to help you through an interview, she said. If you can’t come up with three, it’s time to get to work on bettering yourself, Lauri added.

Once you discuss your personal situation, move the conversation forward. Shift the emphasis towards your value to the prospective employer, said Colodny. Also, talk about recent changes in the market or fresh news in the industry, said Marrus. “Show you haven’t been sitting on the sidelines.”

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