In the February 8, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to persuade a company to focus on skills, rather than on 12 years of jumping from job to job:

I have had 10 jobs in 12 years. All have been increasing in experience from a lowly copier technician, to parts runner, to computer technician, to part-owner of a company, to service manager with multi-million dollar accounts with 5-10 techs under me, and finally to high-end computer network technology for some big companies.

Now I’m looking for a network technology position in a smaller to medium-sized company. I’ve obtained some software certifications and taken some admin courses. All of my experience is baptism by fire and road-warrior stuff. The first question out of prospective employers is, “How come you’ve had 10 jobs in 12 years?” I want to shift the focus to what I can do for the company instead of defending my resume but I am not sure how to go about it.  

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

To most employers, that’s a deadly resume. They are concerned you’re going to “bounce” after a year. They’ll lose what they’ve invested in you, and they’ll have to find a replacement—and that’s no simple feat. This would be true about any job hunter, whether it’s a network technologist like you, or a manager or an executive.

You need to provide an honest explanation that’s going to satisfy an employer. The best way to start is by pointing out that your references are excellent (I hope they are) and that your record of success on the job is stellar. Then, ask the employer, “What is it that concerns you?” Yes, ask point blank, even though you know what the answer is. Let the employer say it aloud. If you want to have a meaningful discussion, the subject needs to be addressed candidly.

Then, depending on the response you get, you must think fast on your feet and figure out how you’re going to help the employer avoid losing you in a year. Start by explaining what happened:

How to Say It
“The first five jobs were quick changes because I wanted to work with sophisticated technology, and each new job offered me dramatic new opportunities to learn and grow. The next five were with large companies, where it was hard to move from one function to the next higher one. The lack of good hires forced technical people like me to stay in one job too long.”

Let the employer ask you questions about this. Unless the employer can exhaust her concerns, you’re not going to get anywhere near an offer. Help her talk about what’s bothering her, or you’ll get no chance at persuasion.

I’m sure you realize that your first real problem is your judgment. If career stability has been your objective, you blew it. You chose companies that could not keep you challenged. Your second big problem is patience: You didn’t invest the time and effort to help one of those companies develop a career plan for you. (We can blame the companies, but it’s your career, and in the end, you’ve got to manage your employers if you want to achieve your own objectives.)

But lets get on with how you might handle this. Before the employer is going to get interested in what you can do for her, she needs to see a commitment…

In the newsletter, the next part is how to make the commitment: How to Say It. (If you want in on the additional advice next week, sign up for the newsletter now!) But my challenge to everyone here on the blog is, How would you say it?

How could you make the kind of commitment that would make a skeptical employer consider what you can do for her company? Is it even possible?


  1. Why are you listing 12 years of jobs on your resume? Totally unnecessary as well as unhelpful.

    My resume goes back around 6 years, and on my next major revision I will lop the last two off because they’re neither impressive nor relevant. Get rid of the tail end and you will have to defend half as many decisions.

  2. @Mike B.

    Interesting! Has this strategy work for you? I always thought employers wanted resumes to go back from college graduate to present (if you are young, say under 35) but at least ten years.

  3. I’m with Mike, I go back two jobs since they show a trend, the rest of the jobs are not relevant and if the employer wants to know, I’m prepared to answer – but on the resume, they detract from what I offer

  4. Since he’s had 10 employers, why not start the search with those he regretted leaving. If he’s as strong and IT guy as he believes, maybe a few of those 10 were sorry to see him leave. Additionally if he was thoughtful about how he departed those employers, often times they would prefer someone they already know the quality of the work rather than an unknown.

    If not, the real lesson for this person is how to leave where they keep calling for you to return.

  5. In Nick’s longer email version of the reader’s question, the reader says “All of my experience is baptism by fire and road-warrior stuff.” He learned by doing, so doesn’t necessarily have the education or credentials that competing job hunters may have.

    This reader clawed his way to his current expertise using a path he created. I think properly presented, it can be an advantage to show how far and how fast he’s come. It’s possible to present that drive as an asset available (for a long period) to a company that can be an ongoing match for his continuing growth, benefiting both.

    Clearly as Nick points out, the reader made some missteps, but if he can show he learned from them, is ready to grow a company long-term along with his skills, he could present himself as the most appealing candidate.

  6. Nick,
    You helped me with this quandary a few years ago. I worked a series of temporary jobs and contract work when I went back to school, dozens over four or five years. You advised me to emphasize my range of skills and the quality of my references instead of trying to use a messy chronological format. What really made a difference was that I stopped apologizing for my choices. But to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have the position I have now if I didn’t spend a few years at my last job. Some folks get hung-up on the track record, by making a short-term commitment to an interim job, I was able to have the best of two worlds.

  7. Using an abbreviated resume is a risk, since lot of HR folks and managers get suspicious if they see a truncated resume. But if you’ve jumped around, it’s a risk to show that, too. So it’s a judgment call. The more you rely on a resume, the tougher it all gets. I think Suzanne C. says it well – the other alternative is to shift the employer’s attention to what you can do. I should have said more about that in my response to the reader in the Q&A – but that’s something I talk about all the time, anyway!

    Great comments and suggestions so far, especially the one about possibly going back to one of the satisified old employers. Things change…

  8. Great post – it is very tricky when your resume shows you “bouncing” from one job to another. I think being honest during interviews is the best way to show you want the position.

  9. My assumption with a resume like that is that the candidate was never good enough at a job to advance with the current employee.

    If I actually agree to bring someone like that in, they can expect allot of questions Like:
    What rating did you get on your performance?
    What did the boss think of you?
    Why didn’t you get an opportunity with that employer?

    I assume opportunity wasn’t the only reason they left multiple jobs. I’d prepare answers for those questions. The answers have to be honest. If a candidate leaves me thinking I didn’t get the full story, they never get an offer.

  10. IMHO, the way around this issue is to emphasize skills in his résumé. This means that instead of having a traditional résumé, which lists his jobs, he changes it so the focus is on his skills. I’m sure that he has learned alot over the years, and brings alot to the table but I agree that if he sticks with a traditional résumé (chronological listing of his jobs), it will raise red flags and lots of questions, if not scaring off some prospective employers.

    I also agree that it sounds like he doesn’t have a degree, and that this might be what is contributing to his inability to remain with a job for a longer period of time, especially if the job or company wants someone with a college degree…they might hire someone with the skills, but when the college grad comes along, they prefer him to the non-college grad.

    This is very interesting because only last week Nick’s featured article was about someone who had been with a company or in the same job for 9 years, and that was deemed weird because no one stays in a job or with a company for that long. If you stay too long, people look at you askance, think you’re weird or wonder what’s wrong with you, why you haven’t changed jobs or companies more frequently. If you change too often, people look at you askance, think you’re weird, wonder what’s wrong with you, why you can’t stick with a job or company longer. So the happy medium is longer than one year, but less than nine years…..

    Steve G: I agree with you re your assumption about opportunity not being the only reason someone left multiple jobs as well as the candidate not being good enough to advance, but like you, I’d still want to know more, and and I think honesty is the best policy. No opportunity? Why not? Advancement goes to college grads and you only have a high school diploma? I know plenty of college grads who don’t have any work ethic (they don’t know what it means to work hard–they expect to be praised for merely showing up) and those without college degrees who have strong work ethics and the ability to learn–if someone is willing to show them. Sometimes the problem is how a particular job is classified, which often comes back to an HR issue, unless there is no way that a non-college grad could do it, no matter how strong his work ethic, no matter how quickly she catches on once taught the job.
    And sometimes it is that intangible thing–companies want people who contribute to their success, meaning their bottom line (profits) but they also want people who “fit in”. If everyone else in a particular dept. or who does that particular job has a college degree, then hiring one person without a degree means that person won’t “fit in” with everyone else. Should it matter so long as that person can do the job? No….but “fitting in” matters to companies, too.

    I would also make sure that I got stellar references from previous employers/bosses, and colleagues. This may help allay concerns that one of the reasons for his jumping from job to job was because he couldn’t do the jobs or because he couldn’t get along with others.

  11. How is this person being introduced to hiring managers? A cold resume in a pile or even an email directly to me isn’t going to have any power. However, if I were to hear about this person from one of his/her former supervisors who I had worked with, that would carry some weight. A third party, who I already know, explaining to me the qualities of the candidate and how this person needs the right kind of opportunity (which of course I could uniquely offer) would get strong consideration.

    Regardless of resume format, 10 jobs in 12 years would raise a lot of red flags for me. In my mind, I would be saying, “it takes 6+ months to get the person up to speed and integrated into the team, and by then, the person will be looking for a new job.” Honestly, with the number of candidates I’ve seen for recent job openings, the person wouldn’t even get an interview if I just had the resume.

    Use the network job seeker.

  12. @Steve G: Thanks for a manager’s perspective, and for some good questions that candidates (and managers) should be aware of.

    @rkc: That’s the bottom line. Defending a “bouncing” resume is no way to get a job. Talk to people instead. Get recommended.

  13. Hi, Nick. One of your best articles. I run into this problem a lot. There’s only so much you can do on a resume to minimize a career of job-hopping. I appreciate that you’ve put it back on the questioner: get your act together so this doesn’t happen in the future! And outstanding advice for how to handle the interview: right into the lion’s mouth. Absolutely the best way to deal with things! Like I said, great article.

  14. Agree with rkc & nick on this one. it’s always good practice for job hunters to network to job hunt as countless articles point out, but with a resume like this one it’s critical.

    You have to try to blow by all the assumptions that jump out at readers, many voiced herein.

    The hiring managers I work with jump right on and stomp into the ground resumes like this, even those with a better track record. Be we recruiters (at my company..meaning me & a colleague) won’t assume people have something lacking in skills or committment because they’ve changed jobs frequently. We keep an open mind and will talk to people to find out what has happened. If we feel there are good reasons, we’ll push the hiring managers.

    No one’s mentioned some of the many legitiamate reasons you see patterns like this..bad business, or merger acquisitions. Shot from the hip assumptions about job hunting often come from those who have had the good forture & it’s often that, of not been downsized. Over the last 5 years there’s been an epidemic of small/medium companies going out of business or being acquired, and large companies laying off with a vengence. I’ve met people who gone through 4 companies in 10 years who never changed their desk.

    Yes, you can argue that the experience can be a positive indicator that if you don’t lose your job in an Merger/Acquisition you must be really good, and those that were terminated were not worth keeping around. That assumes companies behave in a rationale way when acquired or they acquire. You can forget that.

    Hasn’t anyone talked to a spouse who was following in the trail of a husband or wife that hauled them hither and yon, breaking them away from one employer & pushing them to another?

    Conversely, sticking around in companies for awhile doesn’t necessarily mean you are golden. You may be a good politician or someone who’s acquired excellent survival skills. The bad news about them is they are invisible, the good news is ..they are invisible.

    Sometimes they are neither. You’ll find they were contracting and were listing their temporary employers, or they’re consultants and they’re listing clients. They just didn’t do due diligence on their resumes to make that clear.

    Be that as it may, the quick label will be job hopper. So the person better crank up their network and work toward someone walking their resume and making a referral & be creative in their resume and do some work for the reader.

    By that I mean you have to know if perchance you do get someone to talk to you, they are going to ask what is going on. So invest in a sentence and honestly explain why you made a change, and make it clear if you were perm or temp. Was with Company X from 200x to 200y, left because company downsized, was acquired, wife transferred to another state, etc

    This is one those cases where a cover letter may shed further light. Come right out and talk about the rhino in the living room, you know it looks like job hopping…but

    And some good referrals, work referrals from former supervisors..will help.

    But again, the objective is to get people who can influence positioning you for an interview to read, really read, your resume.

  15. If you are an older worker perhaps your long term jobs were at the beginning of your career. I find many candidates to be in this position. They spent 8 years, 10 years at a position and BAM! downsizing, moved, out of business follows them at newer positions. It is very common these days and very sad. I ask my candidates to write a 1 page synopsis of why they left each job. It presents a “better picture” and allows me, client/HR to get a truer picture.If it was just jumping around it becomes obvious and you can then move on. Most have just been caught up in the lousy economy and most take a job, any job because they WANT to work and have excellent work ethics. They do not live off of government subsidies and need benefiits.
    Just a note: Companies and HR people need to understand that older workers are capable of doing the job if given the chance..don’t dismiss them. We will all be there someday!