Dear Lifehacker, I'm having trouble finding work. I've had experience after graduation in my field with several temporary jobs. One year, I hit a snag and was out of work, and lately I've been taking part-time retail jobs to make ends meet. Is retail hurting my chances with future employers more than being self-employed? Should I even include my part-time job on my resume? Signed, Job Hopper
Dear Job Hopper,
It's a tricky situation to be in, isn't it? You have these skills and a career you want to embark on, but jobs are scarce enough that you take what you can get to make ends meet. While it's true that solid career-related experience followed by a bunch of retail jobs on your resume may raise an eyebrow, it doesn't have to be the death of your career. At the end of the day, it's all about how you spin your experience to anyone asking about it. Here's what we mean.
Highlight Your Accomplishments and Valuable Things You Learned
For many of us, the very beginning of our resume is home to a history of retail jobs. It's so far back from our current experience that it really isn't worth including when applying for a new job. However, if those retail jobs are your current experience, you don't have much of a choice but to include them. You could leave a huge hole in your employment history, but that's no good either. It may sound like a stretch (and you may have to stretch a bit to make it work), but every job can teach you something interesting, even if it's about yourself. For your resume, don't even bother with your title or job description. List your accomplishments and achievements instead.
That's the key point here. No matter what job it is, whether it's a professional gig in an office or stacking boxes in a storeroom, you need to highlight the things you did at that job that are most relevant to the position you're applying for. If you have to reach down deep to find them, do it. Even a pizza delivery person or a service desk employee have skills to be proud of. There's nothing wrong with interviewing for a professional job and pointing to your experience turning angry customers into happy ones in customer service jobs or citing your attention to detail and forethought with route planning as attributes that can benefit any company you work for.
Make Those Jobs Part of Your Personal Story
Remember to take those things you're proud of, craft them into a compelling personal story and communicate it. If you have accomplishments, bonuses, achievements and awards from those positions, include them as well. Even a strong work ethic and desire to move your career forward can speak volumes in your favour.
Building a narrative that explains why you're awesome is important. As we mentioned, you have to take those things you're proud of and roll them into a compelling personal story. Having personal stories you can use to relate your skills and experience can make or break an interview. It's the difference between presenting a cohesive image of yourself and your abilities and a disjointed collection of answers to one-off questions, and experiences that don't seem connected to one another.
Also, while it's great to incorporate that experience into a story that helps you explain specific skills that you have, don't forget to make those retail jobs and other experiences part of your overall personal story. When people ask you questions like "Tell me about yourself" in an interview, or ask you to give a presentation in your interview, you'll be able to draw on those experiences to tell a compelling story that showcases your varied skills, ability to make the most of any situation, and overall drive to further your career. Don't shy away from it, even if you are just using that part time gig at the mall to make ends meet.
Don't Leave Them Off Unless The Gap Is Really Short
The question of whether or not unrelated jobs will hurt your chances at a career is one thing. Ultimately, the answer is no, they shouldn't, as long as you know how to spin those experiences into valuable skills and information that's relevant to any future job you apply to.
The other natural question is whether you should leave them off your resume entirely. We have to say no, especially if it's your recent work history. You don't want to leave a massive gap in your work history that you'll have to explain away somehow or that will keep you from getting a call back in the first place. It's one thing if your unrelated work experience is at the beginning of your career or only a few months between more applicable gigs. It's another thing if you're trying to get back into your field now — it's more important to show a history of active employment and a desire to get your career back on track than to pretend you haven't been working.
Besides, if there's a something valuable you learned, a great experience you had, or a story to be told from your current job, tell it! I can easily recall how working at a bookstore when I was in university was one of the best jobs I ever had, and freely tell stories about my experiences there even in professional interviews. I learned a lot about working with people who were different than I am, dealing with challenging customers and multiple demands, and what I could do with access to a treasure trove of information.
It can be a stretch sometimes, and you should stretch to find ways to make your experiences applicable and relevant. Still, sometimes the most menial "do it now so you never have to do it again later" jobs are the ones that teach us the most about ourselves and our work ethic, and those are the things that carry your career long after you've moved on.
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