When Employers Shun the Unemployed

Last Updated Jul 29, 2011 12:40 PM EDT

The New York Times on Tuesday shone a light on one of the HR industry's worst-kept secrets: For many open positions, unemployed candidates need not apply.

Not only are there are plenty of want ads that specify that the company will consider only currently employed candidates, millions of other job seekers are quietly winnowed out of competition if they've been out of work for an extended period.

"We may be seeing what's called statistical discrimination," Robert Shimer, a labor economist at the University of Chicago, told the TImes. "On average, these workers might be less attractive, and employers don't bother to look more closely to pick out the good ones."


So how can you escape this agonizing Catch-22 if you've been out of work for a while? Recruiting professionals with whom I've spoken agree that the best route out of the rut is to demonstrate ways you've stayed -- and to present them as bona fide work achievements to the hiring company. In your networking, your resume and your interviews, you can claim current employment via:

1. Volunteer work. The top recruiting experts in the company agree with what TheLadders reported in "How to Treat Volunteer Assignments on Your Resume": These pro-bono efforts can be listed as work just like any other. Pick volunteer positions for causes you can support, but also choose activities that let you exercise your value, whether it's accounting or programming. These stints can generate references, lists of achievements and quantitative value just like any other job.

2. Education. If you have the opportunity between jobs to add a degree or accreditation, they can go straight to the head of your cover letter and resume. A shiny new educational accomplishment is a very legitimate tale of recent activity.

3. Consulting. As Lisa Vaas describes in "Smoothing Out a Bumpy Work History," gathering multiple contract gigs into one "Consulting" item at the top of your work history demonstrates that you're current, busy and already providing value to a variety of clients.

Bottom line: Discrimination against the unemployed is real, but there are real steps you can take to minimize its effects. Prove that you're already doing something to generate value, and the importance of current full-time status is apt to diminish.
  • Matthew Rothenberg

    Matthew Rothenberg is a career-advice veteran and co-author of You're Better Than Your Job Search, a real-world guide to advancing your career in the 21st century.

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