How to Solve Tricky Work History Problems

Yana Parker (author of the The Damn Good Resume Guide) gave train-the-trainer workshops for professional Resume Writers who worked with job seekers at nonprofit and state-run employment agencies. The following email is from a resume writer who had questions about how to solve really tricky work history problems on her clients’ resumes.

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Dear Ms. Parker,

I work as an Employment Consultant, assisting clients on public assistance with job search and resume writing. Do you have any suggestions that may help me in writing resumes for those who:

  1. Are currently on welfare, and may have never worked in their lifetimes, other than being single parents.
  2. Have worked a series of temporary entry-level jobs.
  3. Have been fired from numerous jobs.

Thank you!

Dear Stephanie,
Let’s look at each of the problems you mentioned:

Welfare-to-Work Clients With No Work Experience

About writing resumes for clients currently on welfare who may never have worked in their lifetimes:

First, I would take the position that it ISN’T TRUE that they have “never worked.” Being a single parent is work! So even IF that is absolutely “all” they claim to have done, PARENTING COUNTS and can be entered in the Work History section of a resume as “Full-time Parent” without apology.

However, parenting isn’t yet accorded as much value, by some employers, as ANYTHING that looks like work people usually get paid for. So it is very helpful if you can beef up the “Full-time Parent” label with any marketable activities that happened during the same time period. Dig deep with your welfare clients to uncover anything you can present as WORK concurrent with full-time parenting.

For example, if they lived in a housing project: Did they help organize or support a committee to upgrade the management of the place? Did they help with after-school care, either providing it or making it happen? Did they provide a freelance hair-cutting service for the neighbors?

The main point here is that they DID work, and it’s your task to be resourceful in uncovering and articulating it so it works on a resume. Just keep telling yourself, and them, WORK is WORK is WORK. (Be sure to call that section of the resume “WORK HISTORY,” not Employment History!)

Next, and this is equally crucial, try to get them some CURRENT experience, as soon as possible, any way that’s possible, so there’s something “beefy” to add to their minimal “work history.” This can be UNPAID. It can be SHORT TERM. It can be as simple as one or two weeks volunteer work in any business that will allow them to come in and get some experience. What’s needed is some evidence of SHOWING UP to do some work every day and using some marketable skills in a business setting. This short-term experience can make all the difference, both in the client’s self-esteem and confidence, and in the eyes of a potential employer. It can also provide the client a source of work references  they couldn’t provide before.

Of course you’ll need to convince your client of the VALUE of “working for nothing” (which is what it may look like to them). You’ll need to help them understand that this is, in fact, valuable FREE TRAINING (which it certainly IS!)

If you are working with your welfare client through an agency (such as a local employment service of the welfare department) there may be a program that will reimburse a new employer for part of the wages they pay to an inexperienced new hire coming off of welfare.

Temporary Entry-Level Jobs in the Work History

Working a series of temporary entry-level jobs poses less of a challenge, perhaps. Here you will want to take advantage of the opportunity to include some GOOD WORK HABITS in the “SUMMARY” portion at the top of the resume. Ask your client what they think it took to be a good employee in a low-paying job, while trying to juggle the stresses of other responsibilities such as parenting and, in some cases, learning a new job routine. If they haven’t yet noticed how resourceful and determined they had to be to perform under those conditions, then YOU can point it out to them, get them to appreciate their own efforts, and help them present these assets on their resume.

Fired Many Times

Having been fired from numerous jobs poses a different set of challenges. In your talk with your client, you could help them identify the actual reasons for the firing, and how they feel about it. (Was it fair? Was it justified?)

Then help them understand that, fair or not, the burden is on THEM to make the potential new employer comfortable with the situation of hiring them. (After all, the employer has no way of knowing the truth of the situation, and she will have a “show me” attitude.)

You could have the client choose one or two COLLEAGUES/co-workers from each of the places where they have been fired, and arrange with those co-workers to speak well (even in writing) about the VALUE the client produced on the job.

The BEST strategy might be to support the client in making a direct contact with the past employer who fired them, to see if the relationship can be patched up to AT LEAST the point where the employer would provide a reference letter. If that were possible, it could dramatically improve the client’s feelings about that experience, as well as his ability to talk about it in an interview.

I will give you a personal example of this: I was indirectly fired from a temporary job once, because my supervisor (a rather conservative, religious woman, it turned out) heard me using a word she found offensive. (In my social circles, the word was considered colorful but harmless.) I didn’t even know, until later, that this was why I was not invited to stay on the temp job when the contract ran out and needed to be renewed. When I applied for ANOTHER temp job in a different department at the same university, I was shocked that I did NOT get the job.

When I checked it out, I learned that the previous supervisor had given me a bad reference. I went directly to her to explore the reason, and learned she’d been upset by the language I used. I asked whether, other than that, she felt my work was satisfactory. She replied, “Oh yes, it was fine, in fact I really liked what you did for us. I just didn’t think your language was appropriate in my office.” I told her I really needed the work, and asked if she’d be willing to explain to the Personnel Department, about my actual WORK being quite satisfactory, and she agreed to do it. THEREAFTER I had NO PROBLEM getting future temp assignments.

The point is, advise your client to check it out! Sometimes a bad scene can be repaired!


More Resume Questions and Answers

Want to see how Yana Parker advised job seekers and professional resume writers on other resume problems? Check out our index page for Resume Questions and Answers.

Topics include:

  • Resume Formatting: Where to Put Things on Your Resume
  • How to Write “This and That” on a Resume
  • How to Solve Resume Problems
  • How to Solve Tricky Resume Work History Problems
  • How to Write a Resume for Career Change
  • Filing Out a Job Application Form
  • A Little Job Interviewing Advice