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Writing a Resume When You Haven't Worked for Years

Writing a ResumeWe received a blog comment recently from a woman who had left the workforce 18 years ago to raise her children. Now she's looking to return to work, and wondering, "What do I say on my resume, and where do I start?"

Since there are lots of people in this boat, I thought I'd answer this reader's question, and offer some tips for anyone who's looking to make the leap back into (paid) work after a long time away.

Our reader summarized her former work experience like this: 5 years as a secretary at one company; 8 years of general clerical experience at three previous employers (including 4 years in the U.S. Army); and part-time employment on and off in retail, because the hours were flexible. She's been brushing up on her word processing and office skills, is willing to learn or be trained in new requirements, and is seeking a regular office job.

How to Start the Resume

Making some educated assumptions about the skills one uses while raising children and running a household, and combining those with her actual work history, I might start the resume something like this:

SUMMARY OF QUALIFICATIONS

  • Administrative support professional with a total of 13 years' professional experience, including 4 years as a clerk in the U.S. Army
  • Strong computer and office management skills
  • Excellent time manager with extensive experience coordinating schedules, maintaining calendars, arranging transportation, and making travel arrangements
  • Strengths include budgeting, managing accounts payable and receivable, maintaining supplies, and arranging repairs to equipment or facilities
  • Outstanding interpersonal skills and commitment to customer service

From there, I'd follow a typical resume template, presenting experience, education, etc. If there is relevant volunteer experience, that should be included, too. (Note: Some career advisors recommend using a functional resume format if you've been out for a long time, but most recruiters don't like them, and aren't fooled by the lack of dates.)

How to Start the Cover Letter

While the Summary of Qualifications above is all true, it could be a bit misleading since it doesn't mention that the 13 years of experience is from a long time ago. That's where the cover letter comes in.

I would explain the situation in the cover letter, briefly, honestly, and in positive terms. Here's a sample cover letter opening:

Dear Ms. So&So,

With more than 13 years' professional clerical experience, I believe I have the right combination of skills, personality, and work ethic to be a very effective contributor in the Assistant Office Manager role. I would appreciate the chance to meet with you to discuss this opportunity.

For many years, I have been channeling my administrative support skills into raising, educating, transporting, and managing the busy schedules of three children, the youngest of whom just entered college. I am now looking forward to returning to an office setting where I can transfer my skillset back into the professional arena.

Conclude the cover letter with any other details that support your ability to meet the employer's needs.

Don't Limit Your Options

One other tip for returning workers is to not restrict yourself to the same field or industry you used to work in. For instance, our reader wants an office position. She should consider every type of business — huge corporation, small-town accounting office, downtown hotel, non-profit foundation, school, hospital, insurance company, dental practice, factory ... and the list goes on.

And don't forget about staffing agencies. ("Temp" work was my secret weapon for re-entering the workplace after 10 years at home.) They might even be able to help you sharpen your skills and get your feet wet with various types of short-term office jobs.

The days of straight and narrow career paths are long gone. Workers leave their jobs for lots of reasons, stay away for months, years, or decades, then get back in. Stay positive, stay flexible, and think creatively about where your skills can help a business succeed, and your transition should be (relatively) painless.

Any other hints or questions about returning to work after a long absence? Leave us a comment!

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