Writing a Resume After More Than a Few Years Out of the Workforce

One question we are often asked is how do I write a resume when I haven’t worked, professionally, for years. And it’s tough because most “how to deal with a resume gap” advice is aimed at people who have been out of work for several months, not years. So here’s a high level guide to writing a resume when you’ve been out of the workforce for a long time and are trying to restart your career.

Don’t try to “fool” the reader: Using a nontraditional resume format generally backfires. Recruiters spend very little time reviewing a resume and one that requires them to spend too much time to figure out will get passed over quickly. We generally recommend that you follow a traditional chronological format with your experience (both paid and unpaid) at the top, in order from most recent, and then education under that.

You don’t have to include everything: Resumes are marketing documents, not legal documents. Highlight the experience you have — both paid and not — that makes you a fit for the role you are applying for. This is true for returnships and permanent positions. Should you eliminate all experience that is more than 10 or 20 years in the past due to age discrimination? We get this question often and it’s tough because age discrimination is real. But for women who are restarting their careers it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to create a resume that eliminates “old” experience without eliminating all experience. Focus on the skills and experiences that are most relevant to the job you are applying for, eliminate what you can without diminishing your abilities and be sure to tout what you’ve done in the last one to five years that is relevant. What if you can’t remember all the details of your prior jobs? If you don’t remember it well you won’t be able to speak to it well in an interview, so consider leaving that off for that reason. If there are jobs you want to include — because you worked for a great company or had a great title — include it with a short description of the overall role and any accomplishments that were particularly memorable. That way you’ll get credit for the job without having to go into too much detail.

You should include any experience that fits the role you are applying for. Don’t diminish your unpaid work or even paid work that happened outside a corporate environment. There is an art to doing this well, though. First, be sure to put your experiences in terms that are business friendly. Talk about results and outcomes — money raised or saved, time saved, lives impacted. Second, group projects in ways that make sense and highlight your skills and accomplishments without making it look like you are “padding” your resume. It’s better to say you worked on a 90-day assignment and here’s everything you accomplished in that time than trying to make that look like a job you had for a year with only three months worth of work to show for it.

Consider custom versions. It’s pretty normal for someone restarting their career to have a few different avenues that they are pursuing, especially if their career background had a few twists in it. To follow the advice about “not including everything” while also including relevant experience, you may need a few versions of your resume. Both versions may list all the same jobs (though they may not) but would emphasize different skills and experiences based on the job you are applying for. The easiest way to do this is to create a master version that has all roles and all bullets and then cut out the parts that aren’t relevant for different roles. But don’t go too crazy with the customizing because …

Don’t spend too much time working on your resume. While there are likely plenty of ways to improve your resume, the truth is that the parts of your resume that recruiters focus on first are the parts you can’t change — where you worked, when you worked, what your title was. Extra time spent perfecting each bullet is less valuable than almost every other activity related to job hunting: researching companies, taking classes to update your skills, and reaching out to people who can champion you within an organization or who can connect you to others who can. I realize it’s a cheat to tell you to spend less time on your resume in a blog post about improving your resume, but it’s really to emphasize controlling the parts of the process you can (how you spend your time, who you reach out to) vs. the parts you can’t (your prior career decisions and how others will judge them).

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

11 thoughts on “Writing a Resume After More Than a Few Years Out of the Workforce

  1. I am extremely interested in your website as I have been out of work for the last 15 years due to personal disability and being the primary caregiver for my spouse for over 14 years. Although I receive a disability check, I would rather try to return to work and use the skills I obtained while going to college and receiving my Masters Degree in Rehabilitation Counseling, Case management, and Mental Health Counseling. I have kept abreast on Evidenced Based Practices in the Counseling Profession and have taken an Emergency Counseling in a Public Environment Situation Class that was extremely informational in dealing with situations that could lead to harm to one or more individuals in a church, school or other public area.
    Any information you can give me on writing a resume and cover letter that can get me back into the workforce would be very appreciative. I believe that last 15 years have given me a great deal of life experience as well as professional experience in the sense my former spouse was a Vietnam Veteran with both grave medical and mental prognoses and the skills I learned in school was used daily in his care.

  2. Hi Heidi,

    How do I go about writing about my work achievements, if the majority of my work experiences have been less than a year?

    Thank you

  3. Hi Dean,

    If you’ve spent time working, you’ve probably achieved a lot more than you realize. You can focus on projects, discuss how you work with clients, or how you maintain operations in the day-to-day. Start with creating a list of the things you consider “achievements.” Then focus on writing about the situation or task, the action you took, and then the result.

    You can add relevant skills that you’ve acquired outside of a traditional work role. Hope that helps!

  4. With the wealth of experience you have to offer, you would most likely be better served by sharing your knowledge and experience, thru a platform like Udemy. Just reading the two paragraphs you posted speaks volumes to the unlimited know-how, experience, skill and resources you have obviously gained, and I want to encourage you to take a look at sites like Chris Gillebeau’s “Side Hustle School,” and, Udemy. Both show you ways to think different about your skill-set, earn a handsome living, and impact far more people than you will probably ever reach in a typical workplace. After digesting and trying every “how to” of getting back into the workplace that I could find, it became apparent that once employers see at my age, I would never get my foot in the door again. The focus on youth (often incapable, uncaring, unskilled and worst of all, unteachable) in this country, is illogical and epidemic. Seeing as how I can’t stop aging, I decided to stop apologizing for living past 30, stop diminishing my experience in exchange for labor intensive and barely above minimum wage jobs, and stop trying to get hired by people who are looking to get the most out of me while giving the least, in return. I can’t afford to work strictly as a volunteer, and need more than part time work and pay. So, I took my pastors advice and started looking for ways to hire myself!!! Side Hustle School, Udemy, the SBA (and legitimate WAH (Work-at-Home) websites) help you to look at your skills, different. And then use your experience to build a business that you love…a business that will enable you to live comfortably, give generously and leave a blessing behind you, when your work here on earth is done!

  5. Hi Mary! We’re glad you found being your own boss works for you and brings you happiness. We often share resources with our readers that can help them learn new skills.

  6. As a recent graduate i want to create resume/CV for myself as i am going to start looking for job but didn’t know how and what should i include on resume so started searching over net and found out this article which i think is great help for students like us. Thank You.

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