Whenever Robert Skladany conducts workshops for job seekers over age 50, he hears one word again and again: résumés.
Among the men and women in these groups – some unemployed, others reentering the workforce – a common concern predominates. "They feel they are not at all familiar with contemporary résumés," says Mr. Skladany, vice president of research at Retirement Jobs.com in Waltham, Mass.
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One man told him he had not written a résumé for 25 years. In that time, résumés have indeed undergone a transformation. Paper documents, once read and filed by people, have turned electronic. Often they are screened by an employer's automated applicant-tracking system. These changes call for new approaches on the part of applicants.
"Older workers don't understand the environment they're putting their application into," Skladany says. "They still expect an acknowledgment."
By 2010, 1 of every 3 workers will be over 50 years old. To help them remain competitive in the job market, career counselors emphasize the importance of a polished résumé. Roberta Chinsky Matuson, president of Human Resource Solutions in Northampton, Mass., advises over-50 job seekers to consider four questions: Does your résumé look weathered? Has it grown to three or four pages over time? Is your first job after high school graduation still listed? Are you still displaying the date you graduated from college?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, she says, it's time to redo your résumé.
Including graduation dates is the subject of debate among career specialists. "You shouldn't lie," Ms. Matuson says. "I am not advocating hiding your age. I'm saying, why broadcast it? The people who are screening résumés are 25 years old."
Yet others suggest that applicants include graduation dates. "If you're 50-plus, play it up in your résumé," says Chuck Underwood, president of the consulting firm The Generational Imperative in Cincinnati. Still other job counselors call the use of dates "very individual" and say, "Use your good judgment."
Many career specialists advise older applicants to limit a résumé to two pages and to include only the most recent 15 to 20 years of their work history. Earlier jobs can be summarized under a heading such as "Positions held prior to 1990," with a list of companies and titles.
Skladany avoids the word "experience." The emphasis today is on capabilities, qualifications, and achievements, he says, not previous titles, duties, and length of service.
Chronological listings on résumés have given way in some cases to formats that highlight skills. "In a chronological format, your most important or relevant experience might be three jobs back," says Shel Horowitz, a professional résumé writer in Northampton, Mass. "Companies may not get that far in reading."
In an electronic age, Jeff Benrey, CEO of Trovix, an online job site in Mountain View, Calif., underscores the importance of a well-formatted résumé. Many examples and templates are available on the Internet, he says.
He still receives an occasional mailed résumé. "In one sense, it's charming. 'Oh look, somebody went to the post office and mailed this.' On the other hand, it begs the question, 'how computer savvy are you?' You want to make sure applicants are Internet savvy and connected."
Being connected also means having a cellphone and e-mail. "In the absence of a cellphone and an e-mail address, recruiters assume technological ignorance," Skladany says. "If your e-mail address is currently fluffykittens6, don't use it. It should be mundane and professional."
"Show that you are up to date on technology, terminology, and industry happenings," says Julie Rains, a certified professional résumé writer in Winston-Salem, N.C. "Avoid references to out-of-date technology." As an example, she adds, "You might describe your computer knowledge as 'understanding of operating systems and electronic media' rather than 'proficiency with DOS and floppy disks.' "
For women over 50 whose careers have been interrupted by family responsibilities – child-rearing and elder care – Vicki Donlan finds that those experiences, properly described in a résumé and interviews, transfer into the workplace today.
"A woman's résumé must amplify her lifetime of experience – at home, in the community, and at work," says Ms. Donlan, author of "Her Turn: Why It's Time for Women to Lead in America."
She is currently advising a woman of 60 who owned a day-care center with her husband. He died suddenly, and she wants to parlay those skills into a corporate job. On her résumé, simply stating "Ran a day-care center with my husband" doesn't sound like a transferable skill, Donlan says. But bullet points of skills required for that role paint a different picture: "Dealt with state licensing. Helped children transition from preschool into public school. Dealt with different levels of management."
Whatever an over-50 job seeker's résumé does or doesn't include, Matuson puts it in a broader context. "You really have to focus on what your attitude is. Workers looking for new positions can come up with a million reasons why someone isn't going to offer them a job. They'll send out two résumés and not get a response and say, 'See, no one wants to hire me. I'm too old.' It's ridiculous. If you're 20 and send out two résumés, you're more than likely going to get the same result."
One way to counter age-related stereotypes is to accentuate your openness to learning, says Scott Erker, a senior vice president at DDI, human resource consultants in Pittsburgh. Mention courses you've taken and professional certifications you've maintained. "Companies want people who are willing to learn, adapt, and be stable, who aren't looking for the next job before they start this one." He finds that older workers are "not very aggressive" about emphasizing things they've done outside of work – volunteer work, travel, and diverse experiences.
Noting that the biggest obstacle older applicants face is discouragement, Skladany encourages an upbeat attitude.
"Be positive," he says. "You have no alternative but to be proud of your age and qualifications."
ADVICE FOR OLDER JOB APPLICANTS
Last month, Melanie Holmes, a 26-year veteran with Manpower North America, started writing about various workplace topics in a blog called Contemporary Working. She offers the following tips for over-50 job seekers:
• Flexibility is a big plus – emphasize that you can be open to a variety of scheduling, titles, consulting, etc.
• Experience is a given – provide details on your familiarity with processes, equipment, and systems.
• Past titles on your résumé may or may not be useful. Be sure to include a brief explanation of duties and related accomplishments.
• If you've upgraded your skills via a short course or certification, make sure it shows up on your résumé and in the interview.
• If you can work it into your cover letter, talk about loyalty, willingness to learn new things, and your comfort with technology.
• Try to limit your work history to what is relevant to the job for which you are applying. But, beware of leaving employment gaps – these can be a red flag to hiring managers.
By Marilyn Gardner
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