why are employers turned off when they hear how much time I spend on my job search?

This was originally published on October 18, 2011(I’m reprinting some posts this week while I’m eating enormous amounts of rum balls and drinking sparkly beverages.)

A reader writes:

I have been unemployed for 6 months and it’s been very challenging! I find looking for a job (a job that is the right fit for me) to be a full-time job! In the past 6 months, I have enrolled in career counseling and have attended resume and interview skills workshops, hidden job market seminars, and job search strategies workshops. I feel this is important for my own personal growth and development, plus it gives me an advantage in my search.

In interviews, when I am asked what have I been doing the last 6 months while unemployed and I say all the above, I feel like I’m being judged, perhaps, or those answers and what I’ve been doing isn’t good enough… Any suggestions?

Yes, they’re judging you for it and it’s not reflecting well on you. Here’s why:

1. Those activities are all about getting a job. But your interviewers don’t care about your job-searching skills; they only care about what you’re going to be like once you’re in a job. So they’re looking for answers like volunteering, taking a class, learning a new skill, working in your community — something that’s going to make you a more valuable employee when you do return to work.

2. It’s … excessive. I don’t know what kind of advice you’re getting at these workshops and seminars and counseling, but a good career expert could give you the basics you need in less than a day. So — fairly or unfairly — it’s coming across as both excessive and desperate, and it’s raising questions about your judgment in doing so much of it, and questions about why you need so much of it.

3. On a more human level, imagine that you’re on a first date. You ask the guy how he likes to spend his time, and he tells you that he spends most of his free time going to relationship seminars, reading dating advice books, and practicing his dating skills. Turn-on or turn-off?  Similar thing here.

Look, I know the job market is horrible and it’s scary to be out of work, and hiring practices can seem mysterious, and the whole thing is incredibly anxiety-producing, and so I understand how you could end up throwing yourself into this kind of thing in the hope that it will help.  And if you want to do it and find it helpful, fine (as long as you’re actually getting good advice from these experts, which I’m questioning). But it’s not a good answer when employers ask you how you’ve been spending your time.

Do something that will make you more marketable. There’s tons to choose from (see answers in point #1 above).

{ 53 comments… read them below }

    1. The Clerk*

      It wouldn’t really have to. It can take up the better part of a few days a week sometimes (travel time, taking extra time on your appearance, etc). Then you spend a bunch of time looking at postings and crafting cover letters (which when you haven’t been given good advice and tend toward perfectionism can take a while). Interacting with a bunch of people you don’t know can be draining even if it’s only a few days a week. When you’re in your job five days, you get used to the routine, but this is a string of new experiences. So to the OP it probably wore her out about as much as her previous job even if the times didn’t match up. I mean, she never said it was all day every day, just that it felt as bad as a full-time job.

    2. Tom B*

      Really and truly looking for work is indeed a full-time job. Reviewing all the job posting sites for openings, researching the companies, crafting cover letters and tailoring resumes takes a few hours a day easily. Then there’s networking and volunteering and checking in with temp agencies (which means going through their websites and writing emails to recruiters) and then researching to make sure one hasn’t missed any opportunities that are newly trending. Long term unemployment breeds depression and anxiety which can contribute to slow production or at least it’s a thing we all have to fight. Working alone all day, sending massive volumes of correspondence into the Great Abyss with only auto-generated replies (usually non-specific rejections), hiding poverty and fear in social settings, and other things are incredibly draining. Being a job seeker is one of the hardest jobs you’ll ever have.

  1. The Clerk*

    I will say that for a lot of people, classes and volunteering aren’t something they might be able to do. Classes are freaking expensive; at the community college near me it’s still a couple hundred for one class, plus they tack on all the fees (technology, parking) even if it’s the only class you’re taking, plus books, to the point where it’s five or six hundred for one class. Plus, I think it’s been addressed here before that single classes don’t look good on a resume anyway.

    Volunteering can look good, but in some areas, try finding the opportunity. When I was first out of work, I was applying for volunteer work as much as paid work and getting about the same success. Most of the major charities just ignored me. I did end up with Girl Scouts for a while, but they wanted me to drive all over the state doing errands and “classes” and the troop leader was pushing me really hard to get a smartphone. I didn’t have money to spend on driving 100 miles one way or $50 a month for a data plan. I finally ended up at a school, but I had to call just about every school in our huge district before one finally had a need for me (25 minutes from my house). I did get a nice reference from that job, but the work wasn’t great for my resume, just kind of a desperate filler.

    All the aggravation and expenditure is an awful lot to go through just so you can answer the question “What have you been doing” in an interview, especially if they’re going to scoff if you put it on your resume. :/

    1. Rayner*

      I completely second you on the expensive nature of doing things like classes or ‘volunteering’. Double suck on the fact that you’re never sure if it’s going to work out/it puts pressure on you in different ways and then the company you want to apply to scoffs at it.

      However, there are always ways to do it, without necessarily going to the academic level of courses, and I don’t think you should discount all of the classes/volunteering that are available out there to everybody.

      In some careers, it’s important to keep your hand in the business e.g. accountancy, and if you want to stay up to date and able to use those skills, taking a short refresher course once a year can be helpful.

      Also, even if you can’t go for those kinds of classes, learning other skills from community centers for free (or very low cost)* like knitting, and then taking it on as something for charity/local community (like knitting things for families who are struggling or knitting cool hats for people who lost their hair). Maintaining blogs/websites – free through word press! – and volunteering with charity shops can also be good. Or volunteering with schools or pre-schools (or adult day care centers. Whichever floats your boat).

      There are lots of ways to get involved, and it’s often hard to find it because on first look, everything is ridiculously expensive. I know this. Family and myself have been there, done that.

      I’m not saying that it’s a perfect thing, and often times you will have to dot around, and try to find something that matches you mentally, physically, and emotionally, as well as financially which can be hard when you’re out of work. A lot of times, people will try to take advantage of you if you are a volunteer, and I completely agree that that sucks.

      But I just wanted to say that sometimes, it can be a good thing to take the class/do the work/find something else for free/volunteer, and companies do note it when they see it. As long as they think it’ aimed in the right direction.

      *also, note, I have privilege, I live in a place where learning this kind of thing is possible. So I apologise if it comes off as condescending.

      1. De Minimis*

        When I was out of work it seemed like finding a volunteer position was as competitive as finding an actual job! I think there were so many people looking for work there that organizations had their pick of volunteers. I know many times they put people on waiting lists, or sometimes would have positions where people would have to spend a great deal of time and money commuting if they wanted to volunteer. And even then many times it was the type of volunteer work that didn’t really translate into anything marketable.

        1. Dang*

          I had the same experience. I would contact agency after agency and never hear back. I didn’t even really want it for my resume, just to help out and have something worthwhile to do. Eventually I stopped trying because it’s taxing enough to get rejections from job postings, and it started making me feel awful that I can’t even get a response when I’m
          offering free work.

          I know… Sure, some cheese with that whine would be great, thanks. It just kind of annoys me to hear this advice all.the.time from people who think it’s an easy solution and will get you a job.

          1. Felicia*

            I actually do have a substantive volunteer position, and it can be done. It’s not the advice that annoys me, because it can be good, more the advice that says you can just go “hey I want to volunteer here!” and then be able to. It’s not that easy, so it’s not fair to act like it is. Even the smaller orgs here are hard to get into (though I got into a good one!), because it’s a city of 3 million ish + that has terrible unemployment rates, for recent grads and older people especially, so when everyone is trying to volunteer, some with years more real experience than me, it’s competitive.

              1. Felicia*

                I hear it all the time. To be fair, only from older people, and maybe it was true at some point. They expect me to call up whatever organization, tell them i would like to volunteer,, and then be offered a position

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I think that might just the volunteer version of (some) older people’s paid job search advice — like “show up in person with your resume and they’ll be impressed by your tenacity.”

        2. SevenSixOne*

          A roadblock I kept running into when I was looking for a volunteer gig is that many volunteer coordinators… are volunteers.

          So I’d ask about volunteer opportunites and find out I need to speak to Stephanie, who’s only there 8:00-2:00 every other Monday– whee, several weeks of phone tag runaround!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For what it’s worth, it can be easier to find volunteering roles with smaller, younger nonprofits (and those roles are often more substantive too). If you’re calling large organizations and getting blown off, try little ones. Look on Idealist for ideas.

      1. MR*

        I was just going to make this comment. The smaller, local non-profits are the ones you want to go for. I’ve never been rejected for my help when I have gone to these types of organizations.

        You get to know the people you work with much better, the impact of your work is better reflected and it is often easier to expand your network locally. Give it a shot!

        1. Chinook*

          Add me to the voices saying that it is easier to volunteer with smaller, local organizations. It is even easier if you are already part of a group or religious community like a church. I found it next to impossible financially to volunteer with kids or tutoring until I approached my church. Now I coteach Sunday School and am even part of testing a new curriculum on behalf of our Bishop (no small thing since he cowrote or last set of textbooks 15 years ago) and was able to create my own adult class. These things will look awesome on my resume if/when I get back into teaching (though I am doing this because I miss teaching) and would never happened in any secular organization I approached.

          1. the gold digger*

            I was going to mention church, as well. My church always has volunteer opportunities. I am not sure how useful they are for building job skills – it is mostly things like preparing meals at the homeless shelter, hammering nails at Habitat, or running the beer booth at the basketball arena (I heard the Bob Dylan concert free by doing this, not that I like Bob Dylan so much but Mark Knopfler opened and that was great), but if nothing else, it gets you out of the house and you meet new people, some of whom might be good connections.

          2. Limon*

            I have been volunteering at a local church run (LDS) thrift shop, and I like it! I am not of that faith and even said to them: is it ok if I am not a church member? they laughed and said ‘welcome.’

            I don’t do too much other than whatever they tell me to. Fold clothes, sort things by color or whatever. There have been many days when I felt upset by an interview or whatever and I would go and volunteer and just being there a few hours that day made me feel alot better.

            It’s amazing how being part of a great and positive organization, of a faith I am not even a member of, can bring such good things into your life. Accepting others without having to be a certain way, is a pretty good thing.

      2. MissM*

        I’d also recommend looking to see if your community has a central volunteer network. Our local United Way website has a volunteer search page that allows you to look through hundreds of volunteer opportunities with smaller organizations. You can search by specific skills needed, location, etc.

        1. Jill of All Trades*

          Another volunteering search option is volunteermatch.org; non-profits can post what they have available sort of like a job ad and it lets you search for openings by keyword, geography, etc. I’ve used it and it connected me with a TINY non-profit that I never would have heard of and they loved that they found me. The smaller ones tend to use this site (at least in Atlanta) so you may find an organization that isn’t flooded with volunteers already.

          1. Anna*

            I use volunteermatch.org ALL THE TIME for the students I work with. They have all sorts of really neat opportunities. Also, the best way to get a more solid long term volunteering gig is to show up consistently at the smaller opportunities. We have an organization where I live called Friends of Trees. They post on Volunteer Match. You don’t have to sign up, you just show up, but you can show up as often as you like. So they post once for every Saturday between April and Oct at This Park or That Park. If you have a local PBS station, volunteer answering phones for the radio or television station fundraisers. I don’t really get the people saying it’s difficult to find opportunities. It’s possible folk are being too particular?

      3. Rachel*

        This is what I was going to say! Look for orgs with budgets under $1 million – they never have enough staff to do everything they want to. You should also be willing to do volunteer work that isn’t necessarily related to your job – being the person who says “yes, absolutely!” to helping with a mailing or reorganizing files will make you the team player who was always willing to pitch in and help us out with whatever was needed. I did this kind of volunteering when I was unemployed – I did some stuff related to my work, like helping to move the organization’s website to a new CMS and re-writing some sections of that website, but I also did data entry. My supervisor at the volunteering was one of my references, in the end, which was great since my previous job would only confirm dates of employment.

      4. Anonymous*

        Even the small places around me want multiple interviews and a background check and references and its more work than finding a paying job.

      5. TL*

        Yeah, I had a very hard time finding a volunteer position with any of the big organizations and then I randomly became involved with the cultural center where I now volunteer (very small) and it was much easier, plus I get to trade my hours for classes – dance and Spanish – and events. And I always look forward to going there. It’s what I’ll miss most about my city when I move!

    3. EM*

      While the work might not be marketable, animal rescue groups & shelters generally always need help. Like I said, I understand if one is trying to find a volunteer position that relates to their career or past work experience, but I have yet to hear of a shelter that has ever turned away people who want to come walk the dogs, for instance.

      1. Dang*

        Oh.. That’s a really good idea. I used to volunteer for one and I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!!

      2. Felicia*

        The one near me turned me away:( They had too many volunteers, and pointed me to one across the city that wasn’t accessible for me. I think they get a lot of volunteers from the vet school

      3. JuliB*

        I am a volunteer with a multi-state cat rescue organization that is dedicated to a specific breed (virtual – no building). We need volunteers, but we need someone who will stick around for the long term. People who will be a foster coordinator, an adoption coordinator, grant writing, fundraising,etc.

        Being a 501(c)3, we’ve been contacted by people needing to do community service – (those are your big competitors). We turn those people away. They are sent by the courts, by the welfare agencies and perhaps even schools looking for service hours. Evidently, our name is on a list that is given out by the state we’re incorporated in.

        But we can’t use most of those volunteers that come to our (virtual) door, and we need people who are in it for a decent amount of time. From this side, it’s frustrating too.

        Once you get into the more virtual world of rescues, you’d be shocked at how many roles are needed to be filled. But, we train and then people disappear. We have a sister organization that is more national (all states except our Great Lakes states which we cover) which may have folded due to a lack of high level volunteers.

        1. JuliB*

          BTW – we’re not one of those orgs struggling for money. While we aren’t rolling in the dough, we rarely send out pleas for $$. It’s been years since we ran one and it was for a specific hoarding situation we were assisting with. The influx of cats we were taking (since it was a ‘breeder’ hoarder, she had many types of purebreds – there were many breed groups involved in the rescue) could have caused a financial strain, so we did a little begging and nearly covered the whole amount we needed before we started getting the cats.

    4. Felicia*

      totally agree with you about the volunteering! especially the meaningful / related to what you’re looking for volunteering. i want to get into PR and I was lucky enough to get a 2 day a week relevant volunteer position after my contract ended last week but there are so few of those, there were apparently 200 applicants for the one I got. Is volunteering to solicit strangers for donations or stuffing envelopes going to be that helpful? And even those, you stll have to aply for the positions, write a cover letter, interview. You can’t just say “hey i want to volunteer!” and then just do it if you don’t have much experience. Since it’s the same process as getting a paid job , people might be focusing on getting paid.

    5. Kimberlee, Esq.*

      A great place to look at for volunteering is political campaigns. Pick your candidate and be a supervol; campaigns are ALWAYS equipped to deal with vols, since that’s how a lot of the work gets done. You usually have options from envelope stuffing to making calls to knocking doors. Campaigns will give you good references if you do good work, and they are finite in duration (if you’re feeling guilty about the prospect of leaving once you get a full-time job). Plus campaign people are cool. :)

      1. Rachel*

        And if they trust you, campaigns will totally give volunteers important work! I did some volunteering on a city council campaign while I was unemployed (and yes, this is separate from the other volunteering I did, which was at a mainstream feminist nonprofit) and they had me doing data entry – which meant I was learning their contact management system, which was a new one to me, as well as the voter database. I do nonprofit communications, so learning new contact management systems is never a bad thing.

          1. the gold digger*

            Here are some of the things we needed volunteers for during the campaign:

            1. knock on doors to talk about the candidate
            2. put up yard signs
            3. work at a call center (which is ODIOUS, even if you are talking about your own husband)
            4. do data entry with the door sheets
            5. assemble yard signs

            Any candidate will kiss your feet for doing these things. Don’t, however, be the guy who, one week before the election, tells you he wants to help but doesn’t want to do any of the chores above but instead wants to discuss campaign strategy. Dude! It is ONE WEEK before the election! We don’t have time to change the strategy and we don’t have the money to do a multi-media blitz: http://diaryofagolddigger.blogspot.com/2013/03/sunday-oct-21-notes-from-party.html

    6. Beth Anne*

      That is the problem I have…I live in a smaller town and a lot of the volunteer opportunities were over an hour away…and when I was unemployed I didn’t have the money to do all that driving.

      I do volunteer at church but I was looking for things to help my resume more than anything.

      I have a job now but being unemployed is really hard for this introvert because I tend to never leave the house and not want to waste gas and there is no bus here :(

    7. Stellanor*

      When I was unemployed I didn’t have money to dump into paid classes (plus I was sporadically temping so my schedule was too variable). Most of the volunteer opportunities I looked into wanted very big time commitments (a local museum will only take you if you can commit to 15+ hours a week for at least six months, for example) which also didn’t mesh with the temping.

      I ended up taking online courses and doing some self-study. MOOCs through places like Coursera or EdX are free but taught by staff at big-name universities — I did courses through Harvard and Johns Hopkins. you don’t get course credit but you can definitely learn some serious skills. I also joined local study groups that met weekly, which was cheap (cost bus fare and a cup of coffee, since we met at a cafe) and a good networking opportunity.

      My SO is an expert in a field I’m interested in so I had him help me learn some things also — he vetted books and tutorials for me and set me little “assignments”. So I learned to write mobile applications from him. That’s not even relevant to my field, but interviewers liked to hear that I was keeping busy expanding my skills, and the job I did get likes that I have some basic programming skills.

  2. Sandrine*

    I remember that one! It did feel a little excessive, even though in this job market I can understand how one may be tempted to READ ALL THE BOOKS or TAKE ALL THE CLASSES or READ ALL THE ADVICE.

    To me, even THAT would be tiring. It’s already tiring enough to find the postings in the first place. Then you have to look at your CV/resume and check if it’s good enough or if you need to update it. Then you have to look at the cover letter or fill a bazillion online forms and hope the website doesn’t eat what you’ve input after an hour so you don’t have to restart.

    Then you finally get an interview after sending hundreds of resumes out and you have to worry about getting there AND the clothing and woops gotta wax my mustache darn it and AAAAAH MY NAILS. Then you have to worry about not looking like an idiot and then OMG WHEN ARE THEY TELLING ME I GOT IT WHEN WHEN WHEN.

    Yeah, stressful times, and emphasis on purpose in previous paragraphs. I can get a little dramatic at times :D

  3. Jake*

    When I first graduated and was unemployed, I spent 40-50 hours a week job searching. That was resulting in 3-5 completed applications a day, 5 days a week. When you do your research and customize your cover letter, it can take a while.

    That being said, when I was asked what I was doing after graduation in interviews my response was always a mix of “taking a breath so I can jump into company abc/ job xyz” and “studying for certification abc and xyz.”

    Alison is dead on, it is just going to sound desperate and weird if you say you are putting so much time into being a good job hunter.

  4. Rose*

    The dating analogy was SPOT ON! Once I read that I was like I would think that guy is a “loser!” Why does he NEED so much dating advice. Alison I always love your advice, but I really love it when you make it very clear about what you are saying without being mean or insensitive.

    1. Kit M.*

      I don’t think it’s off-putting for the needing advice aspect so much as it says this guy’s priority is dating someone, anyone — i.e. it’s not really about you.

  5. Nyxalinth*

    I once got what I figure now is bad advice: don’t say “Job hunting is my job at the moment”, because it comes off like the above and fools no one.

    Also, volunteering is like a paid job: you need to find a good fit. If you had a poor job fit, you wouldn’t say, “That really sucked. I don’t think working is for me.”, so don’t avoid more volunteering because of a bad experience.

  6. periwinkle*

    “What’s in it for me?” That’s the key question clients have, and I think that translates well to the interview process if you think of the hiring manager as your client. Talking about taking workshops on resume writing and job searching = talking about what you’re doing for yourself. What’s in it for the hiring manager? She isn’t looking for someone good at writing resumes unless that’s actually the job!

    Identify the skills you’ve learned that translate into workplace skills and talk about them in that context. The “hidden job market” seminar focused (I’m assuming) on developing a professional network; in a workplace context, this skill could translate into developing stronger relationships with clients, cross-functional teams, or whatever else is relevant to the job.

  7. Dan*

    I got laid off at the end of the October. I had my first offer 47 days later :) And even better, I had my pick of offers. I also didn’t have to apply for that many jobs, maybe a dozen. I ended up with three interviews and two offers. The offer I accepted was a 20% increase in pay (quite significant at my pay rate) over my previous job, so getting laid off was a good thing, IMHO. I wouldn’t have looked otherwise.

    I do consider myself lucky, because there is a market for my technical degree. I’ve never had to go very long without a job, even out of school. So I have no idea what it’s like to apply for “stretch” jobs, or apply for dozens or hundreds hoping for a phone call.

    I don’t get asked what I do with my “free” time. But I offer it up anyway. In my field, there’s a “hot” subsection that I had no exposure to, but every job that I applied for wanted to see some part of it. So, go figure, it was something I decided to study up on between applications. I’m glad I did, because when interviewers ask me how I feel about “xyz” I can tell them I’ve been getting up to speed with it in my free time. That’s always the end of that conversation :)

  8. Kimberlee, Esq.*

    Also, Codecademy. Go there to learn HTML and other computer-type languages for free. Spend some time on Khan brushing up on skills. Learn a second language with Rosetta (which is cheaper than a class) or even a free phone app. Write a blog talking about interesting things happening in your field. There are always tons of options that can work around any budget or schedule.

  9. Yvonne*

    I don’t know if it has the same impact as a class that you pay for and attend at a brick and mortar, but these days, free online courses with methods of certification (to prove that you did the work) are available through sites like Udacity and Coursera. These are classes offered by real universities such as Stanford, Ivy League schools, etc., on all sorts of different subjects ranging from programming to literature to history to sciences. Some of the classes are very specific, as opposed to 101/Introductory type courses – for example, “Information Security and Risk Management in Context”.

  10. Graciosa*

    For many positions, managers look for sufficient self-awareness to figure out if something is working well or not so that an employee can self-correct their course of action mid-stream. This is an incredibly important skill if the employee is going to be able to perform without too much supervision and grow in the position.

    I hope the OP learned enough from the original post to fix the interview response and find a good job.

  11. Tara T.*

    I agree with AAM – it sounds strange to say you went to job workshops for 6 months. The idea of signing up with an employment agency is a good idea, but as one poster stated, sometimes they never call. The volunteer work suggestions are also good. However, I know someone who simply answered, “Looking for a job!” when the interviewer asked what she was doing while unemployed – and she was hired!

  12. Bunny*

    I realise the letter is WAY old and this comment thread is also pretty old, but I’m recently out of a long stint of being unemployed and, in my country, this sort of level of job-hunting activity is actually mandated if you want to receive any benefits to avoid homelessness while looking for work.

    Example Myself: Govt law restricted me to no more than 16 hours pw volunteering or I would no longer receive benefits, which limited the volunteering options available to me.

    I was put on a 3 week “employability” course in which I was “taught” such important skills as how to use spell-check on a CV, and that it is a good idea to bathe and wear a clean outfit to an interview. Also contained harmful nonsense advice like “make your CV stand out by printing it on coloured paper, in landscape!”.

    I was mandated to quit a really useful volunteer gig that involved using my writing and admin skills, to spend 6 weeks stacking shelves in a supermarket FOR FREE (okay, for govt benefits… I was still classed as unemployed and received no wage, and the benefits do NOT add up to the legal minimum wage) under the “workfare” scheme.

    I was sent on a SECOND “employability” course that gave the exact same information the previous one had, so the company handling my unemployment could claim they “provided extensive work-related training”. And straight after, a “hidden job market” course, a “query and covering letters” course, and a “interview presentation and techniques” course. They refused to pay for the accounting qualification I found that is nationally accredited and that a local adult education centre was offering at a discount to unemployed people.

    And we were required to apply for a minimum number of vacancies per day. Not complaining about that – it’s about being actively working – but in the current job market where most jobs are temp, under 16 hours per week or made-up “apprenticeships” to avoid paying minimum wage, that necessitated spending half a day searching for the few full time jobs available on top of all of the above.

    Just saying, it’s entirely possible the LW is doing all that because, like me and the rest of my peeps, they’ve been mandated to do it, and fooled into thinking this is a- a valuable use of their time (hint, most of these courses are rubbish and tell you nothing that isn’t obvious) and b- something worth putting on a CV! I know they used to say that to me a lot “no, totally put “employability course” on your list of qualifications! Employers will love it because it demonstrates proof you have these skills!”

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