How to get full time work when all you’ve had are contract and survival jobs

Sometimes you have to take survival and contract jobs to make ends meet, particularly when you’re younger and don’t have a lot of experience in a particular field. While this should be perfectly understandable to employers, it’s still something you’re probably going to have to explain.

People sometimes worry that a list of contract and survival jobs makes them look bad on a resume. It won’t, as long as you handle it well.

How to feature contract jobs on a resume and in your cover letter

Yes, you should absolutely list your short-term contract positions, especially if they are the only work experience you have. When doing so, make sure that you highlight your accomplishments, as you should with any position you have held. When listing your experience, always focus on your accomplishments rather than your “duties and responsibilities.” If you don’t think you have any accomplishments to highlight, read this and see if you can’t come up with some.

Explain, briefly, in your cover letter that you have mostly held contract positions. You don’t have to get into why. Just mention it and state that you’re eager to work in a full time position at (insert company here). Then list examples of achievements in those jobs and the skills they required that are transferable to this new position. Either use different examples than those on your resume, or word it differently. The cover letter shouldn’t just be a resume rehash.

Be prepared to answer questions on the topic

Employers are going to ask you why all your work has been contract or temporary. How you answer this question is going to make all the difference for you. The key is to communicate that this is a strategic path, rather than one you were forced to take because you were at the mercy of the job market or because of your youth and lack of experience.

Hiring managers don’t want to hear that you’re a victim of circumstance, and they’re not going to hire you because things are tough out there. They might feel sorry for you, but it isn’t going to make them want to hire you. They will hire you if you can convince them that you’re already successful in your endeavours and that you will make them successful in theirs.

Rather than saying you took the work because it was all you could get — and it was short term because that’s just the nature of contracts (duh), you might explain that contract work allowed you the freedom to travel, study, volunteer, or learn a new skill like writing, social media, or a coding language. You don’t have to have a degree to have studied these days. You can have been teaching yourself how to meditate or getting the equivalent of an MBA online. After all, you probably haven’t been sitting around doing nothing. Figure out how to turn what you have been doing into something marketable. And if you haven’t been doing anything, go do something now to make yourself more marketable.

Change the conversation to the one you want to have

Once you’ve explained the why, flip the question and answer the one that matters: how the skills and experience you used and gained in your contract or survival jobs transfer to the role for which you’re applying. Don’t wait to be asked, just segue into it.

For instance, if you’re applying for a job in marketing, which requires communication skills, hitting deadlines, and problem solving, you can say, “What’s great about having worked in manufacturing at Lush is that I got to be a part of an amazing production team. We all had to work seamlessly together to hit targets – which we consistently did, more than any other team. This required careful use of communication and organizational skills. The job also requires close attention to detail.” Then tell a story about how you solved a problem at work to demonstrate problem solving skills.

Demonstrate your understanding of the job market landscape

If they persist, you can state that job hopping is actually the new normal, and reference research showing that job tenures are getting shorter, and that the average millennial will now stay in a job for an average of just two years. Moreover, more than 80% of Canadian employees will have to leave their job for advancement opportunities. You can then move the conversation into how you hope this won’t be the case with you and that you’re out to find a company with which you can stick it out for the long haul. Employers love that stuff.

Change the subject, and don’t let them bring it back.

You are not limited to your history of survival jobs. Make it work for you.

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