Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mind the Gap

As mentioned on previous posts, the challenge of finding my next role has not been as smooth sailing as one might think with 20+ years experience in the software industry, a first class engineering degree and now an MBA. Unfortunately in the current employment environment it remains tough just getting past the first hurdle; from CV appraisal to interview. In many cases I’m not sure anyone actual reads my CV.

There are numerous on-line blogs, advice columns and even ‘old-fashioned’ books on the topic of writing a compelling CV. I’ve lost count of the number of unsolicited emails I receive from people offering me free appraisals of my efforts. One topic often covered if what to do about gaps in your CV, or more specifically, periods of time where there was no obvious employer. In addition to the most recent gap whilst I completed my full-time MBA and now search for my next position, my career also includes an 18-month sabbatical when I retrained to work as a service provider in the sports and leisure industry. This aspect of my career history has always required a certain amount of management. It has been necessary to ensure I report my activities away from progressive career roles in a positive manner, which is generally straightforward with honesty always the best policy.

But what should you do if the gap on your CV is because you were sleeping rough or, even more controversially, in prison?

Not a problem most of us face. But a very real problem to many job seekers caught in the vicious circle of not being able to find a job because of their current (or recent past) and therefore unable to take enough steps away to keep themselves clear of trouble. Yesterday I had the opportunity to meet and discuss these problems with a number of potential job candidates in exactly this position.

As part of my own efforts to keep busy during my job hunt I have been helping a number of friends with their own businesses. In particular I have spent a lot of time working with a small but rapidly growing landscape gardening business based in West London. We constantly have a need for additional on-site landscape assistants (or semi-skilled labourers), willing to work hard and deliver a good job. In addition to improving the physical environment we also have a commitment to helping less fortunate members of society. We were delighted to have the opportunity to support Crisis (the national charity for single homeless people) with their Employment Platform event.

The event was arranged to help job seekers “connect directly with employers and improve their prospects of getting a job and leaving homelessness behind for good”. It also enabled employers to meet and discuss problems face-to-face with Crisis clients and gain an understanding of the type of obstacles typically placed in their way. In additional to the usual job-fair style stands, there were a variety of supporting workshops and a Q&A session with a panel of employers.

Though I enjoyed meeting prospective employees on my stand; the most interesting session for me was as a member of the panel for the Q&A’s. This was where the ‘gap’ problem was raised with passion by many in the audience. Most saw it as a real barrier to their success approaching organisations. The panel recommended that applicants put a positive spin on any activity or tasks completed during these gaps (such as attending the current workshop) but also to remain honest and be wary of deliberately hiding information. The reaction of the audience implied this technique hadn’t helped. One member of the panel did express the opinion there are many organisations not as forward-thinking and open-minded as those attending the event and this would remain an issue until there was better awareness of the problems amongst the majority of employers.

The discussion on convictions struck a particular note for me. It was suggested that for the large majority of roles there was no need to disclose any criminal background. In fact until someone is offered the job it is best to withhold this information to minimise the disclosure to a wider audience (after all why would anyone not interested in employing someone care about such things). Once given a firm offer it was then important to disclose this information to ensure honesty and integrity. It then becomes the employer’s risk management to make the decision on whether or it is necessary to withdrawal the offer based on the new information. Though a situation to which I have not yet been exposed, I think I understand and agree with this notion. As an employer I want to have the opportunity to make this decision myself, but not necessarily before I have chosen the best candidate based on the requirements in the job criteria.  

Overall I had an enjoyable and enlightening experience. I also hope that as a business we are in the position to offer roles to at least some of the candidates as we expand over the next few months. In terms of my own job hunt it was a very humbling experience and makes me realise how easy I have it relative to some.

Everyone I met yesterday was either homeless or had recent experience of being homeless. All of them showed considerable commitment, enthusiasm and drive to attend the event and take advantage of the opportunity to enhance their career prospects. I can’t help but feel that they would prove far better candidates than most others with standard boiler-plate CVs with no gaps...

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