Translating Non-work Experience into Business Language

It’s commonly mentioned that the work that women do outside the paid workforce when they’ve taken a pause for caregiving gains them skills and experiences that are valuable in the professional environment as well. But it’s less common to find good advice on how to translate those experiences in a way that recruiters and hiring managers will understand. The better you are able to articulate how your experiences have gained you skills that are valuable to a business, the more likely you are to persuade a potential employer that you are likely to be a valuable asset to their team.

Here are four common experiences that many women who are out of the workforce have and the business skills that they help to build. Use these ideas to update your resume with the kinds of skills and accomplishments that will get you noticed.

Leading a volunteer organization or project: Leadership in a volunteer organization is one of the most common ways that women build skills outside their profession. But while it’s often cited as an obvious plus for women to be leading these groups it’s not often well articulated in resumes. Running volunteer organizations first and foremost shows an ability to persuade using influence instead of authority. This is a hugely valuable skill in today’s highly matrixed, collaborative environments. Similarly it shows the ability to collaborate with different personalities and manage competing agendas. Maybe most important of all, running volunteer projects demonstrates a focus on goals and accomplishments so be sure your resume lists specific achievements. One common volunteer accomplishment is fundraising and any time you can demonstrate an ability to raise funds and maintain financial viability that is going to be interesting to any business. Finally, leadership in a volunteer organization shows an ability and willingness to lead. These posts are often elected, which means you had to convince a group of people that you could lead. And the fact that you raised your hand demonstrates drive and ambition — traits that all employers admire, especially when deployed in service of a greater goal.

Participating in a volunteer project: While many advice columns focus on leadership roles in the volunteer world there are a lot of really important skills and experiences to be gained in participating at any level. First, not everyone needs to lead — companies need followers to accomplish their goals. And many are beginning to recognize the need for effective “followship” which is the only way any work actually gets done. How specifically does volunteer work demonstrate that? First, it shows your ability to maintain commitment to a cause despite ambiguity of roles and responsibilities. While roles are often better articulated in businesses there is often a lot of ambiguity, especially as traditional hierarchies have given way to flatter organizations that require more cross-departmental coordination. Volunteer work also demonstrates your ability to manage your own performance to accomplish team’s goals. In volunteer organizations there isn’t a paycheck and sometimes not really an effective “boss” to manage you — you need to manage your own outcomes. In today’s leaner business environment showing that you can get the work done without a lot of management oversight is a big plus. And, volunteering demonstrates passion and drive — traits that all employers look for.

Managing your child’s special needs case: I’ve been surprised how often I meet women who’ve taken a break from their career in order to have time to devote to managing their child’s special needs. While the break was often taken out of necessity, the experience also garner skills that translate to business. First and foremost, managing a special needs case involves navigating complex bureaucracies and rules while adhering to very strict deadlines and schedules. The number of organizations that are often involved in a child’s case — school districts, health insurers, doctors and hospitals — can be staggering both in breadth and complexity. Which means working on your child’s case demonstrates an ability to process complex information and make decisions with limited information — traits that are highly valued in fast-paced businesses.

Coordinating an international move: I’ve also been surprised how many women I meet who’ve taken time off from their career in order to move their family around the world in service of a spouse’s career. Sometimes these breaks are forced by immigration rules. But in either event coordinating this kind of move demonstrates many skills that businesses need today. Like a special needs case, coordinating a move to another country also involves navigating complex bureaucracies and rules while adhering to deadlines and schedules. It also requires adapting to differing culture and supporting family in their adaptation — something that businesses that place an emphasis on culture and culture fit will recognize as important. Of course for any global business time abroad gives you a perspective on the world that is very valuable. And you get a net-plus if you also had to learn another language, which both demonstrates your ability to learn new skills and is a skill in itself that many companies value.

So how do you specifically translate these experiences to your resume? Taking our suggestions of the skills these types of experiences can demonstrate, write your accomplishments in each role with an eye toward those valued skills. By translating your “non-work” experience into business language you are far more likely to catch the eye of a recruiter or hiring manager. First, because they can now imagine how you’ve stayed relevant and the new skills you’ve built that will help them accomplish their goals. And second because it shows that you understand the needs of business and how you can show value in a professional setting.

2 thoughts on “Translating Non-work Experience into Business Language

  1. hello!

    i have run both volunteer projects as well as taken care of my adopted special needs son for the last 4 years.

    How and WHERE do I put that on my resume?

    1. Sarah — We recommend a chronological resume, for most people, so you’d put this experience at the right spot based on timing. There are mixed views on including caregiving experience on resumes. We know caregivers face bias so you will want to be thoughtful of where and when you include it. But my view is that employers figure out that you’ve been out of work so taking credit for the experiences you had outside the workforce will help you with the employers who are open to it and is neutral with those who aren’t. You can also use the information in this post during interviews even when you don’t include the experience on your resume. The main point of the post is translating those experiences into language that hiring managers will understand and value.

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