How to Find Professional References If You Don’t Have Recent Work Experience

You’ve embarked on a job hunt armed with a personal arsenal of job application resources, like an updated resume, tailored cover letter, and stellar interview tactics. But there’s one crucial component of the job search process that returners often overlook: professional references.

Companies rely on professional references to verify your skill set and to get an outsider’s opinion of how you perform in a workplace environment. These recommendations can also create an opportunity to highlight character-driven skills like work ethic, teamwork, and leadership, which can have a major impact on an employer’s decision to hire you.

Professional references are a valuable tool in helping you land a job, but they can also be a source of stress for people who have been out of the workforce for a while. If you haven’t worked in a professional setting recently, you might have to get creative when it comes to finding these references. Here are a few places to start.

1.  Volunteer Groups

One thing to keep in mind when you’re looking for a professional reference is they don’t have to be from a former coworker. They can be acquaintances you’ve met through various volunteer, school, or religious groups in your area. Getting involved in community organizations creates an opportunity to grow your network, take on leadership roles, and use your skills in an organized setting. The relationships you develop in these groups can serve as legitimate professional recommendations that can attest to your hard work.

While these references may be friends, be sure they can talk about your efforts and accomplishments within the organization. Here are a few tips on how to talk about your experience in terms that hiring managers will understand and admire.

2.  Educators

Many people who step away from the workforce often pursue education or skills development as a means of career re-entry. Not only can completing skills training help your career development, but it can also serve as a pathway to another referral.

Educators are experts in their field and can attest to your understanding of core skills in your area. They are also uniquely familiar with your ability to perform tasks, meet deadlines, and think critically. When it comes to using an educator as a professional reference, pick someone who knows you on a personal level. It’s better to choose a bootcamp instructor who is intimately familiar with your abilities than a professor in a 100-person lecture course.

3.  Consulting or Freelance Clients

Relationships developed from consulting or freelance work can lend a strong level of legitimacy to your expertise. Freelance clients are essentially former bosses. They can verify your competencies and discuss solid examples of projects you delivered (even if it’s pro bono).

They can also provide insight into your professional communication style and customer service. If you’ve performed recent freelance work, these clients should be at the top of your professional reference lists.

4. Former Supervisors or Colleagues

It may seem obvious, but former colleagues and supervisors can still serve as professional references, even if it’s been a while. If you left on good terms and enjoyed your working relationship, reach out to them on LinkedIn and say you’d like to reconnect.

Invite them out to coffee, explain why you left the workforce, and tell them you’re ready to restart your career. Asking them in-person to serve as a reference can help make the situation feel less like cold-calling. Plus, seeing them face-to-face will remind them of your positive qualities and give them a more recent interaction to use in your reference check.

In summary, when it comes to finding the right professional reference, look for someone who can address specific situations around your work experience and ethic. Friends, family, and acquaintances with no insight into your professional background often are bad choices for references.

Once someone has agreed to be your reference, keep them appraised of your job search progress. Give them fair warning that someone may reach out to them, discuss the company that you’ve applied to, and let them know how the search process went, especially if you got the job!


Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.

Originally published October 2017.