Long-term unemployment: How to explain it in a job interview

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The recent jobs report had mixed news: Overall unemployment levels have settled at a relatively lower 8.5 percent (despite a post-holiday jump), but 5.6 million Americans have been out of work longer than 6 months, and 3.9 million for more than a year.

When someone who has been out of the workforce for more than six months applies for a job, potential employers will have questions about that resume gap. I spoke to career strategist J.T. O'Donnell, author of CAREEREALISM: The Smart Approach to a Satisfying Career and founder of the virtual career center CareerHMO.com about how candidates should address these concerns.

Why is it important to explain long-term unemployment in a proactive way?

The reality is that recruiters and hiring managers will assume that you have a flaw or some other negative reason for your lack of work. Hiring managers and recruiters will expect you to hold yourself accountable and at least be able to articulate one or two solid reasons for this problem. In short, if you can't own up to what has happened to some degree, then the assumption will be you are flawed in your ability to see the situation for what it is. Moreover, you will be seen as someone who blames others for setbacks.

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Is mentioning the down economy a good reason?

In spite of the fact that the average length of unemployment in America is 10 months, you cannot use this excuse as your only reason for being unemployed for so long. This does not make you look unlucky but, rather, you appear as someone who feels victimized and helpless. So, a legitimate reason for being unemployed for this long is a combination of the current economy as well as mistakes made in the job search process. [This will] demonstrate professionalism and the ability to learn from mistakes.

How should you assure the interviewer that you're not out of touch with your industry?

Specifically, you should be able to explain the top challenges, changes and trends that are being experienced by your industry. This will show your commitment to your field and your desire to stay in it. Emphasizing freelance work or volunteer work is the ideal way to articulate that you have been making an effort to keep your skills current and contribute in some capacity. More importantly, this demonstrates that you understand the value of giving your time and energy as a way to continue growing yourself.

How important is confidence for a comeback from long-term unemployment?

Many individuals have lost their job through no fault of their own, yet they are experiencing a crisis of confidence in their abilities. Trying to hide that fear; even worse, not dealing with that fear will translate in your body language and facial expressions. In short, even if you think you're doing a fabulous job masking it, hiring managers will see through you. My advice is to work with a trusted mentor, or better still an experienced career coach, who can help you work through your feelings and get you to a place where you can talk about this of employment objectively.

Can humor help make light of your situation?

It takes a unique personality to be able to use humor when discussing long-term unemployment. Too much joking and lighthearted excuses will make it appear as if you don't really appreciate what has happened to you. Cracking jokes about the economy or mistakes you have made could also be misperceived as you blaming others for your situation. When it comes to long-term unemployment, accountability must be your mantra.

Any other tips to share on this important topic?

Avoid spending too much time with people in the same boat. You need to surround yourself with people who are working in your industry. The best way to do this is by joining groups on LinkedIn in your area of expertise, attending industry events, and setting up informational interviews with people working in positions that you aspire to. This will enable you to have meaningful conversations with peers, allowing you to showcase how you've stayed current in spite of the fact that you're between jobs. You'd be surprised at how many working professionals love to job it forward! Don't feel bad about asking for help -- the day will come when you can repay the favor.

  • Amy Levin-Epstein On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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