How to Keep Your Skills Fresh When Unemployed

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There’s a security out there that tracks the average (mean) length of time someone is employed and that figure broke thirty weeks in January. The average person looking for work will not find it in seven months… seven months of job hunting. Seven months of going to job fairs. Seven months of searching online at job websites.

If you’re submitting resumes and calling companies, there are only so many resumes you can submit, calls you can make, before you start burning out. If you start burning out, you reduce the chances you’ll ace the interview because your brain is being beaten into submission by monotony.

That’s why it’s important for you to sprinkle in other activities throughout the day. It’s hard to do this because when you don’t have a job, you feel like you have to get one. To get one you have to submit resumes, call companies, and do all the things involved in “job hunting.” Then you fall into a vicious cycle… no job, want job, must search, keep searching, burn out… you get it. So how do you introduce activities that aren’t directly related to looking for a job but improve your prospects?


You have skills and volunteer organizations need skills. Whether you have trade skills or office skills or you’re just a fast and hard worker, local volunteer organizations can use you. By working as a volunteer, you don’t lose unemployment benefit eligibility and you can flex some of your skills and keep them sharp.

Also, this gives you a great answer to a common interview question: “what have you been doing since your last job?” Being able to say that you help an organization solve a problem is a fantastic answer.

Freelance Consulting

If you’ve exhausted your unemployment benefits and are still having difficulty, consider freelance consulting. A lot of companies need talent but can’t afford to add someone to their payroll, so offering your services as a consultant can bring in some much needed income while keeping your industry knowledge and skills fresh. If you think you might be able to do this, consider going to some local business events like chamber meetings to meet other business owners or search online sites like Craigslist for freelance gigs.

The freelance road isn’t for everyone and it’s not easy but if you’re able to leverage your skills this way you could accidentally start your own business or find your next job.

Pick Up a Complementary Hobby

Want to teach yourself something useful by accident? Pick a hobby that builds on a skill you might find useful in your main career. Let’s say you’ve been doing web design for the last five years and you’ve become pretty good, why not take up a little reading on graphic design or search engine optimization? Start a blog tracking everything you learn and you never know, that might blow up and become a nice side income for you. If nothing else you pick up some new skills that complement your career skills and you become a better hire down the road.

Do Something Fun

Do something you’ve always wanted to do but never had a chance to. This won’t really keep your skills fresh while your unemployed but it will keep you fresh. It’ll break up the monotony and make you a more appealing candidate when your job prospect improve and you get called into interviews. You want to go into interviews with a lot of energy and excitement, which are very difficult to fake especially after months of searching.

And when you do something fun… it’s fun! 🙂

Do you have any good suggestions for what a job seeker should do, outside of direct job hunting activities, that can help him or her become a better candidate or a better person?

{ 18 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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18 Responses to “How to Keep Your Skills Fresh When Unemployed”

  1. hoht says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with the volunteering and fun part. Being a full-time student doesn’t really leave time to work at a paying job. But when there is time, I meet new people, potentially a future employer when I volunteer. But also cute girls which is a breath of fresh air in a life of formulas and crunching numbers.

  2. DJ Wetzel says:

    Good advice here for sure. Freelance consulting is a great way to drum up some income. And you are right, you also have the potential to turn your freelance skills into something more permanent. In this sense, losing your job may be the best thing that ever happened to you.

    • jsbrendog says:

      agreed. I definitely noticed an upward trend in articles on so-and-so losing their job and being crushed but then realizing it was the best thing that ever happened to them and then selling their art on etsy or opening their own muffin business etc. we underestimate our own resourcefulness and also don’t realize we might not like what we do until it is forced on us to have to find something else.

  3. All great suggestions. Volunteering is a great idea especially if it can be doing similar work to what you had been doing. I would also suggest just keeping up with the latest trends in your field. For example, I am a software developer and in order to stay fresh, I would make sure to read tons of articles on the latest software technologies.

  4. Martha says:

    When I was unemployed I enjoyed a change of scenery to keep me motivated! I’d go to the library and use their computers to submit my resumes and write cover letters. That way I could leave the house but still be productive in my outing.

  5. katherine says:

    Great list of great idea. When jobseekers are doing something that helps their search but is also fun/interesting, it does wonders for how they come across in networking and interviews.

  6. echidnina says:

    I’m a student training to become a translator, so keeping my language skills sharp is important. I watch foreign movies in my spare time and listen to music in my language while on the bus – keeping me entertained AND preparing for my job.

  7. Chris says:

    While I don’t think one should be actively searching for a new job on company time, I don’t think it is realistic for companies to expect their employees not to have the radars up and running looking for something else. Employees compete on a heavy level, shouldn’t the company do the same?

  8. I really like the volunteering idea. It’s always a good thing to do, and particularly good right now as these non-profits are in desperate need of help.

    As for starting a consulting business, here’s a quick high level business plan for helping small professional groups improve retention rates and increase their marketing efforts:

    Main Idea: setup and maintain websites for solo practicioners and small offices that offer accounting, legal, financial planning, or other advisory services.

    Benefit of Solution: these people are always looking for ways to increase hourly billing and retain customers without spending a lot of time or money making it happen. By setting up a clean looking website (most of these people either don’t have a website or they have a very crude one at best that has static content and no call to action) with fresh content and an obvious call to action, they can expand business and retain more clients.

    How It Works: using a blogging service like WordPress, Typepad, or Blogger, a clean, professional looking website can be setup with little or no cost. This can be updated weekly with fresh content (either home made or from a content provider) and current clients can be signed up to receive this updated content via email or RSS feed. As part of the site design and layout, a button can be added that will direct clients and prospects to an appointment scheduling application like or something similar. This is the call to action that most of these folks’ websites sorely lack. By having fresh content, these professionals stay top of mind. By having meaningful content, they provide value. If that content is a great read, it can be emailed to friends that can lead to more referrals and more business. Beyond that, these emails count as a client communication because at the bottom of each one is an invitation to book an appointment or to call with a question.

    How To Sell It: Identify local professionals by looking on Yahoo! locals and searching for accountant, attorney, financial advisor, etc. Call these folks and let them know that you have a way that can significantly improve client acquisition and retention by opening a new communications channel. Meet with them and walk them through a sample solution. Tell them the benefits.

    Financials: Someone familiar with blogging needn’t be an HTML whiz because blogging services were created for normal people. Total setup time for a blog would be somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three hours. A setup fee could be around $200 and provide a decent wage. Ongoing maintenance (usually uploading content or other tweaks here and there) can be billed at $25 to $50 per hour (usually less than half of what the hourly rate they charge).

    I would estimate that someone doing this kind of business could make between $40k and $60k in a year. This could also be rolled out in a group starter program through a local Chamber where you could use the local library to invite business owners to come in and literally have a nice looking website by the end of the day.

    This is an idea that I haven’t had time to chase, but websites for local businesses are TERRIBLE! Using a blogging service,, intuit websites, etc. can deliver an out of the box solution with low cost and easy design features.

    Think of a local restaurant. They don’t need sophisticated ordering services (though this is also possible with some site building applications), but a clean, up-to-date looking site is a must.

    I just thought of my favorite Greek restaurant. It’s like a family diner, but they have a URL, but no website. Wouldn’t it be great if they had a website that posted pictures of families celebrating holidays together? What if that was a picture leading to some catering business later on?

    One of the great fallacies is that businesses think if you simply build a website, consumers will come. Fortunately, this has for the most part been dispelled. If you talk to a small business owner and tell them that a website will bring in new business, they will kick you out…and rightfully so. If you tell them that this will help retain customers and show them how it works, you’ll likely get some people to take a shot.

    Either way, anyone that does this can keep it as a part-time business and if it goes well, turn it into full-time work. If it goes really, really well, maybe you’ll become the go to guy or gal for local businesses needing web marketing services.

    Just a thought.

  9. jsbrendog says:

    it’s just like exercising, if you don’t go to the gym or workout fora long period of time your muscles shrink and your unable to perform at the level you were previously. It is the same for letting your skills stagnate. these are some good suggestions to keep up with the times hwile trying to find a job. hopefully you do what you love so it won’t be an issue either way

    • Soccer9040 says:

      Exercising is also a great thing to do with your time. It keeps you in shape and motivated. Its too easy to loose motivation and just sit around doing nothing after awhile.

  10. Shirley says:

    Off topic, but… for the ‘youngsters’ out there:

    Pass the activity info in this great article on to your parents/grandparents as “How to Keep Your Mind Fresh When Retired”.

    Activity, either physical or mental, helps to stave off ‘old age’ dementia and Alzheimers. It also means a happy and healthy life for that period in time which you have worked and saved so hard toward.

  11. Keith Morris says:

    My wife was unemployed for a full year. During that time, while she was looking for a teaching job, she volunteered to teach religious education at our church. When she was called in for an interview, they noticed the lack of work and asked her what she had been doing for the last year. It certainly helped her to show that she had been practicing her profession.

  12. e148 says:

    First of all let me say this: I am 53 years old. I have been in technology for 31 years. I graduated from Electronics school then. Since then I have gotten several college degrees, but not allowed to use them. I got my Bachelor’s (Computer Information Science) degree 4 days before my 40th birthday. That was 13 years ago. I cannot get a software job.

    Most of my schooling was done in my 30s and early 40s.

    Age discrimination is rampant, especially in the technology areas. Back in the mid-90s people (Engineers and the like) were being laid off just because they had turned 40. Back then (mid to late 90s) three other things happened:

    1) Bill Gates of Microsoft said that he would not consider turning over control of Microsoft to someone his own age but maybe someone 17.

    2) A TV Magazine interviewed some HR people and they said that they were told not to consider anyone over 39.

    3) A local (Austin Texas) Sunday morning news show was interviewing a Director of IT (in his mid-20s) and he said that technology was for the young and that is the way it had to be.

    The ideas posted here are all tired ideas. They have been around for years now. What is more they do not work, at least not those of us over 40. They are myths.

    Volunteering does not help. Neither does training. The companies want to know what you got paid to do. They want to know if you are competent enough to get paid to do it. Volunteering does not mean you are competent in the least.

    I have only been asked once in 13 years (really the past 8 years- I first got laid off 8 years ago) what I have doing since being out of work. This is hardly a glaring reason to volunteer even if it did work.

    It is NOT like exercising. I have never gone to a gym. Again, another waste of time. It is more like a swim meet. Lifting weights does not help much. If fact if you become muscle bound it would be detrimental to your swimming. Competitive swimming will be what some team captain wants to know about. In other words doing it.

    It is also like riding a bicycle. Even if you hadn’t done it in years it does not take long for it to come back to you. Use it or lose it is another myth. Employers and the rest of us need to know this. I had been out of work for a 1½ years (out of work longer than that actually) and took a job as an Electronics Technician. Within a few days I was fixing Printed Circuit Boards that they could not fix.

    I have never gotten a job via networking. It is a total waste of time. The time spent networking could be better spent applying to jobs. You know that back in the 60s and 70s computer people predicted that by 2000 or so that we would be working about 23 hours because computers would make us that much more efficient. When we do work, it is more likely that we are actually at work 50+ hours – hours spent networking—in meetings etc.

    Another myth is that skills are transferable. They aren’t. They should be but just aren’t. They may have been in the distant past but not in the past 15 years or so. For example, I have been turned down for jobs because I did not have Linux experience. I have had experience with TI System V UNIX, Sun Solaris (UNIX), and HP-UNIX. Linux is just another version of UNIX. My experience with 3 other versions of UNIX did NOT help me get a Linux job. They did NOT transfer.

    So, I am NOT even convinced that you can “keep” skills fresh when unemployed. By most company’s definitions skills are only acquired on the job. Therefore, during the time you do not have a job, anything that you might think of as skills acquired then (or maintained), are irrelevant.

    Regardless whether or not you think that these work, but the time you get to be 40 they won’t work. Realize that you still have more than another quarter of a century left to work before retirement, full retirement.

  13. When I was unemployed and actively looking for work, I always did freelance writing/admin assignments. When that wasn’t available, I volunteered and frequently went to the library and bookstores to teach myself anything I was interested in at the moment. That helped a lot during the dry periods.

  14. Daddy Paul says:

    I wish I could find someone who would loan me a robot to practice on. Some skills are hard to practice because the tools are too expensive.

  15. Derry says:

    To e148

    I am 54 and have been unemployed after my past employer closed its operations last July.

    I shared many of the comments that you had made.

    Yes. I am ageing. Employers tend to hire young guns rather than veterans. I felt my skills and knowledge were quickly outdated over time. Looking back, I did spend a fair bit of time/money/effort in continuous enrichment either through professional training or academic post graduates degrees. Still, I felt I was not competitive. I could not figure out the new skills required in this ever changing world. For the social networking side, no one really takes a keen interest to an old folk.

    Sadly, the only job available is voluntary work….

    Albeit so, life has to be meaningful. I am not wealthy but have to make every effort to stay healthy.

    I am back to my school days doing a fair bit of sports that my body can afford to. (I suffer from tennis elbows and sore ankles.) I am into the free guitar lessons in youtube a few hours a day. I now figured out most of the popular songs (Hotel California, Rock n Roll, Stairway to Heaven…….. I did not do then quite right in my younger days.

    There will be more than enough to keep you occupy to stay healthy, positive and meaningful.

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