QI've spent the last few years working in jobs outside my field because of the recession. Now that the job market is picking up, I'm trying to find the right way to explain the retail, volunteer work, etc., that I've done to send a good message. What do you suggest?
AIdentify the themes that run through your career -- including recent years -- so that you can tell a compelling story.
The inner game
Sit down, close your eyes, and reflect on your career path so far. If you're feeling regret or anxiety, set those feelings aside and focus on accepting the path you've been on. Go easy on yourself, recognizing that you've done what you needed to in order to get by in circumstances that you didn't create.
Now think deeply about your values as a person and a professional. Regardless of whether you've been working in your field or in other roles, these will carry through. For example, if one of your values relates to understanding your customer's needs, identify ways in which this has shown up across your career.
Similarly, think about your areas of skills and expertise. Some may be more technical, and it may be more difficult to find a connection. Others may focus more on intangibles such as communication skills, which will lend themselves more easily to inclusion in your résumé and interview story.
The outer game
Developing an effective résumé that highlights your strengths will be key. Review different options to find an approach that works for you. In your field, you may want to include more design elements than in a standard résumé to send a visual message about your capabilities. Also explore non-chronological formats that will de-emphasize gaps in your professional path.
In terms of content, craft some high-impact statements about what you would bring to a new position. These can be used at the top of your résumé or in a cover letter to spark an employer's interest.
Anticipate interview questions that explore your job history, and outline your responses. For example, to a general question about your work history, emphasize your most recent professional role, comment on the lack of jobs in the industry, and note your diligence in finding other work and your initiative in volunteering. End with your readiness to move back into the profession, and mention steps you've taken to remain current, such as reading industry literature, attending meetings or taking classes.
Prepare for questions that may be more pointed, so you aren't on the defensive. Rehearse your responses somewhat so that you're not stumbling for words, but not so much that it sounds canned.
Remember that this will not be a new story to employers -- many people are in a similar situation, and there will not be a stigma with it as long as you own your story with assurance. If you find yourself feeling insecure, take some deep breaths and reground yourself in your skills and capabilities.
The last word
Take advantage of new opportunities, and use your track record in hard times as a demonstration of your ability to succeed.