You're unemployed. You haven't found a new job yet despite your best efforts. As the days go by, you start eyeing your resume with concern. How are you going to explain this period to employers?
The truth is you don't have to.
Career coaches and recruiters agree that a resume isn't the right place to mention a layoff. That should be saved for the formal application and, if it comes up, the job interview. Some suggest mentioning it in your cover letter in straightforward, succinct and future-oriented language.
The resume, however, is a different story. There's simply no requirement to mention you were let go. Sherrie Dvorak, senior vice president of the staffing agency Frontline Source Group, says, "There's really no reason to have to list your reasons for leaving a position. It may come up in conversation, but it doesn't necessarily have to go on a resume."
That doesn't mean you should hide the layoff. Sam Phelps, an executive recruiter at Newcastle Associates, says, "[Layoffs] are a fact of life. Really great people get laid off all the time. So, I don't think a layoff is anything to be ashamed of—at all."
That said, keeping your resume fresh during a period of career inactivity is important, and there are several ways to do it.
Don't put off the job search
Nick Walker, an executive director at the employment agency Michael Page, says a common mistake people make in a layoff is to use their severance package to travel for an extended time with intentions of picking up the job search "in a few months."
"There is a shelf life," Walker says, "and if you start to reach the end of that shelf life—even if you can explain it—it becomes something you have to explain. You can avoid having that issue by taking just a day to wallow in the layoff and spend the next day activating your network."
Rekindle your network
Following a layoff, Walker suggests getting in touch with former colleagues.
"The best resource," Walker says, "is going to be people you worked with. They're always more capable of vouching for you than a stranger could."
While networking is your strongest asset, it's by no means your only one. You'll need to take a multi-pronged approach to your job search. "You can't just use your network," Walker says. "You can't just apply directly. You can't just wait for the phone to ring. You can't just use a recruiter. The best candidates use all of them in parallel."
LinkedIn is a good resource for connecting with recruiters. "Connect with good recruiters, not every recruiter," Walker adds. His rule of thumb is working with no more than three recruiters. "Anything more you risk oversaturating yourself on the market."
Stacey Lane, a career coach in Portland, says networking after a layoff is particularly effective for those far along in their careers. "At the executive level, what you should be focused on is any extracurricular activities that get you networking."
Get new certifications
Another strategy for staying fresh is pursuing professional certifications.
"There are so many low-cost, university-sponsored courses that you can take online," Lane says. These give you a chance to brush up on skills you lack or learn programs you haven't used. Plus, it helps fill in any potential gaps on your resume, which will become more important the further you move beyond your layoff date.
Sherrie Dvorak agrees. "I would always encourage job seekers who are going to be covering a gap in their resume to try to fill in other things that they might have done during that block of time, like maybe pursuing additional certifications or volunteer work," Dvorak says.
"Anything to kind of help fill in the gaps. That way, it doesn't look like there's this huge empty space of time that's gone unaccounted for."
Marilyn Feldstein, the founder of Career Choices Unlimited, suggests taking a couple of classes. "Technical skills are changing all the time, so if you're an administrative assistant and you're not proficient in Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, take a class," she says.
If possible, "start doing that while you are still employed," she adds, "so you can put that on your resume and when you're looking, you feel confident you have what employers are looking for."
If you're wondering what skills will help you move forward with your career, a resume builder may help you figure out what you're missing.
Take contract jobs
One of the best ways to fill the gaps is taking on contract work, Nick Walker says. "Sometimes I think people are a little too proud or feel it's going to distract them from looking for a job. The reality is you can look for a job [during] nights and weekends if you had to."
You may have to make compromises. Perhaps the pay is lower than you'd like, or the commute isn't great. In the long run, though, you'll make new connections that could lead to full-time work, and you'll have fresh experience to add to your resume.
While this case is an extreme example, it shows how some might benefit from thinking about their layoff in different terms. "She was out of work for a while given the recession, and she was going stir crazy," Walker says. "It wasn't about the money. It was about getting back to work."
Plus, he adds, she liked the brand. "It was a good brand to have on her resume. It ended up working out. She kind of hit refresh on her resume with that contract position."