How to Get Job References When You Haven’t Worked in Years?

job references when you haven't worked in years

Obtaining job references after a long period of absence from the workforce can be a challenging endeavor.

The significance of references in securing employment cannot be overlooked, as they provide potential employers with insights into an applicant’s capabilities and character.

This implies that even if you haven’t held a job recently, it’s still possible to build a compelling list of references.

Forging strong relationships is at the core of identifying potential references.

You might look to former colleagues, mentors, or industry contacts whom you’ve interacted with professionally in the past.

Alternatively, engaging in new activities such as volunteer work, online courses, or attending industry events can lead to new connections who can vouch for your skills and work ethic.

The goal is to accumulate a diverse array of advocates who can provide a testament to your qualifications.

Presenting your reference list effectively is also paramount.

It should be well-structured and presented in a manner that highlights how each reference is relevant to the positions you are applying for.

By thoughtfully considering who to include and how to reach out to them, you increase your chances of gaining persuasive endorsements that will bolster your application, even without recent job experience.

Key Takeaways

  • Build a mixed list of references from past connections and new interactions.
  • Ensure your references can attest to your skills and personal attributes.
  • A structured reference list can strengthen your application despite employment gaps.

Understanding the Importance of References

When embarking on a job search after a significant gap in work experience, references play a critical role. They provide a potential employer with credible insights into your qualifications and work ethic.

A male professional in his late thirties, looking confident and approachable, sitting at a coffee shop with a younger female colleague. They are discussing over a laptop, with the screen displaying a resume or LinkedIn profile, symbolizing the mentoring or guidance process in understanding the importance of references.

During the hiring process, a well-rounded resume paired with influential references can sometimes outweigh the lack of recent employment.

During interviews, your references can attest to your skills and character, thus reinforcing the statements in your job application and cover letter.

Remember that references should always relate to your professional abilities and achievements.

Even without recent formal work, consider individuals who can vouch for your skills relevant to the jobs you’re applying for.

Recruitment process standards often require candidates to provide references.

Think of those in your personal or volunteer work who can testify to your reliability, expertise, and soft skills.

Type of ReferenceRelevanceExample
ProfessionalDirect work experiencePrevious Supervisors
AcademicEducational backgroundProfessors or Academic Advisors
PersonalCharacter attributesColleagues or Mentors

Always seek permission from your references before listing them and provide them with an idea of the roles you’re applying for. This way, they’ll be prepared to offer the most pertinent information about your abilities.

Identifying Potential References

When you’re seeking references after a hiatus from professional work, it’s important to focus on those who can attest to your skills, character, and work ethic.

A group of two professionals (one male and one female) in their thirties, looking hopeful and collaborative, standing in front of a bright, modern office building. They are shaking hands, with one holding a folder that suggests a successful reference exchange, symbolizing the successful culmination of securing strong job references.

Reconnecting with Past Employers and Coworkers

Start by listing former employers and coworkers who knew your work firsthand. Contact them through professional networks like LinkedIn or via email.

Be direct about your current goals and politely ask if they’d be comfortable serving as a reference.

  • Employers/Superiors: Focus on those with a positive view of your work. Example:
    • Name: Mr. John Doe, Previous Manager
    • Contact:
    • Position: Senior Manager at XYZ Corp (2015-2018)
  • Coworkers: Select individuals who collaborated closely with you.

Utilizing Academic Contacts

Even after years, professors or educational mentors can be excellent references, especially if you maintained a strong relationship or had notable academic achievements.

  • Education Contacts:
    • Professor Name: Dr. Alice Brown
    • Contact:
    • Subject/Course: Advanced Molecular Biology, Fall 2016

Engaging with Volunteer Coordinators and Organizations

Your voluntary service can yield valuable references. Volunteer coordinators or leaders from organizations you’ve supported often witness skills that are transferable to the workplace.

  • Volunteer Work:

Exploring Connections from Freelance and Part-Time Roles

Don’t overlook clients, vendors, or supervisors from freelance or part-time jobs. They can speak about your professionalism and the quality of your work.

  • Freelance/Part-Time Jobs:
    • Client Name: Mark Anderson, CEO of TechGuru
    • Contact:
    • Project Detail: Web Development, March-June 2022
  • Vendor Name: Quick Print Supplies

Cultivating New References

If you haven’t been in the workforce for a while, you can still gather credible job references by actively engaging in new activities and expanding your professional circle.

A group of three volunteers (one male and two females) in their twenties, wearing matching t-shirts for a community clean-up event, looking enthusiastic and cooperative. They are gathered around a table, planning their tasks with a map and cleanup tools, symbolizing teamwork and the building of new professional relationships through volunteer work.

Building Relations through Volunteering

Engage in volunteer work to demonstrate your skills and commitment.

Seek out opportunities that align with your career interests or showcase transferable skills.

By consistently showing up and performing well, you can earn the respect of the organizers and fellow volunteers, who can offer positive references.

  • Where to volunteer: Look for local non-profits, community events, or online platforms that match volunteers with organizations.
  • How to stand out: Take initiative, show leadership, and be dependable.

Expanding Your Network on LinkedIn

Utilize LinkedIn to connect with industry professionals and former colleagues.

Regularly update your profile with relevant skills and experiences, and engage with your network.

  • Creating an Attractive Profile: Include a professional picture, a comprehensive summary, and a detailed experience section.
  • Engagement: Regularly post updates, share articles, and engage in discussions to stay visible in your network.

Joining Professional Organizations and Clubs

Become a member of relevant professional organizations and clubs.

Participation in meetings, committees, or events can introduce you to people who may serve as references.

  • Selecting Organizations: Choose those that are well-regarded in your field and offer ample interaction opportunities.
  • Active Involvement: Attend events, volunteer for committees, and assume leadership roles when possible.

Creating a Strong Reference List

When you haven’t worked in years, it’s crucial to present a reference list that accurately reflects your qualifications and trustworthiness.

This list should combine professional credibility and personal integrity, ensuring potential employers have a holistic view of your character and capabilities.

A young male professional, looking organized and focused, sitting at a minimalist desk. He's holding a pen and reviewing a printed list in front of him, with a laptop open to an email application, symbolizing the preparation of a structured reference list.

Selecting the Right Mix of References

Professional References: Start by considering any previous professional contacts you may still be in touch with.

These can include former managers, colleagues, or subordinates who can attest to your work ethic and experience.

Even if you’ve been out of the workforce, you might have connections from volunteer positions, freelance, or part-time work that can serve as professional references.

Character References: In absence of recent job-related contacts, focus on character references.

These should be individuals who know you well and can speak to your reliability, honesty, and professionalism.

Ideal choices are mentors, leaders of community organizations, or educators.

Formatting and Organizing Your Reference List

Formatting Your List: Keep your reference list neat and easy to read by using a clear template.

Start with the reference’s name in bold, followed by their professional title or relationship to you in italic.

Next, list their current company, if applicable, their contact information, and a brief note on how they know you.

  • John Doe
    Former Supervisor
    Company XYZ
    Phone: (555)123-4567
    ‘Managed me during Project ABC’

Organizing Your List: Keep your reference list in a logical order.

Professional references should generally come before character references.

If you have several professional references, you might want to order them by relevance to the job you’re applying for or by how recently you worked with them.

Always ask for permission before listing someone as a reference and confirm their contact details are correct.

Strengthening Your Application without Recent Work History

When re-entering the job market after years, your approach to your application must underscore your evergreen competencies and the contributions you can make to potential employers.

A female professional in her mid-thirties, appearing determined and introspective, updating her resume at a home office desk. She has notes and a coffee beside her, with a bulletin board in the background featuring motivational quotes and goals, symbolizing the process of highlighting transferable skills and achievements despite employment gaps.

Emphasizing Transferable Skills and Qualities

Focus on transferable skills such as teamwork, work ethic, character, and drive that are valuable in any job.

For instance:

  • Teamwork: Detail specific events where you cooperated with others to achieve a goal.
  • Work Ethic: Provide examples that demonstrate your dedication and commitment.
  • Character & Drive: Discuss challenges you’ve overcome that highlight your resilience and ambition.

Highlighting Educational and Volunteer Achievements

Your resume should prominently feature any educational pursuits or volunteer work that you’ve been involved with during your employment gap.

  • Education: Outline relevant coursework or certifications that have kept your skills current.
  • Volunteer Work: Quantify your contributions to volunteer projects, emphasizing leadership roles or initiatives you spearheaded.

Tailoring Your Resume and Cover Letter

Customize your resume and cover letter for each application:

  • In the Resume:
    • Prioritize relevancy in your work history and education.
    • Use bullet points to present your achievements clearly.
  • In the Cover Letter:
    • Explain gaps with a positive spin—focus on growth and learning.
    • Connect personal values and skills to the employer’s needs.

Approaching Potential References

When re-entering the job market, choosing and approaching potential references is a crucial step.

A male professional in his early forties, looking respectful and hopeful, handing a printed resume to a female acquaintance or former coworker during a casual meeting in a serene public library. The setting implies a discussion about the possibility of being a job reference.

How to Professionally Ask for a Reference

To ask for a reference professionally, begin with reaching out via a formal communication channel, such as email or a LinkedIn message.

Start with a courteous greeting and then state your request clearly. It is important to be direct but polite, demonstrating respect for the person’s time and potential willingness to help.

Subject: Reference Request for Job Application

Dear [Potential Reference’s Name],

I hope this message finds you well. I am currently seeking new employment opportunities and am reaching out to inquire if you would be willing to provide a professional reference for me.

Providing Context and Necessary Information

When you provide context, explain your current situation and why you have chosen them as a reference.

This can be due to a past work experience, educational connection, or any professional interaction.

Be concise but informative about your career goals and how their reference is pertinent.

Don’t forget to include:

  • Your updated resume: To remind them of your qualifications and recent experiences.
  • Specific skills or projects: Highlight any skills or projects you would like them to focus on in their recommendation.
In the years since we last worked together at [Company Name], I've focused on developing [specific skills or projects] which I believe could greatly contribute to my desired role as [Job Title].

Following Up and Showing Appreciation

If you haven’t received a response within a week or two, it’s appropriate to send a polite follow-up message.

Expressing gratitude is key throughout this process, whether they have agreed to give you a reference or not.

A simple thank you note can go a long way and help maintain a positive relationship.

Subject: Follow-up on Reference Request

Dear [Potential Reference’s Name],

I wanted to follow up on my previous message regarding a reference for my job application. I would greatly appreciate your support in this next step of my career. Thank you for considering my request.

After they have agreed to be your reference, send a thank-you email acknowledging their time and assistance:

Subject: Appreciation for Agreeing to Be My Reference

Dear [Potential Reference’s Name],

Thank you very much for agreeing to serve as a professional reference for me. Your support is greatly appreciated, and I am confident that your recommendation will be an invaluable part of my job application.

Yours sincerely,

[Your Name]

Navigating Challenges for Specific Scenarios

When returning to the workforce or starting your career, securing job references can be challenging.

Your focus should be on demonstrating your skills and reliability to potential references.

A female professional in her late twenties, looking optimistic and conversational, sitting across from a male community leader or volunteer coordinator at a community center, with paperwork and a laptop between them. This setting illustrates seeking references from volunteer experiences or community involvement.

Addressing Gaps Due to Being Out of the Workforce

If you have been out of the workforce for an extended period, you may need to get creative in identifying potential references. Consider the following steps:

  • Reconnect with Former Supervisors: Reach out to previous employers, regardless of how much time has passed. They can attest to your past work experience and qualities.
  • Leverage Volunteering and Community Work: Any recent involvement in community or volunteer roles can provide valuable references. Individuals familiar with your contributions in these settings, such as organizers or team leaders, can vouch for skills relevant to the workplace.
  • Professional Courses or Training: If you’ve undertaken any professional development during your time away from work, your instructors or mentors can serve as credible references, highlighting your commitment to staying updated in your field.

Seeking References for Entry-Level or First Jobs

Entering the workforce with limited or no formal work experience can present its own set of challenges in obtaining references. Here’s how to navigate them:

  • Academic References: Professors or faculty advisors can often provide references for entry-level positions or a first job. They can speak to your academic achievements and potential as it applies to the workplace.
  • Internships or Apprenticeships: If you’ve completed an internship or apprenticeship, your supervisors from those experiences are ideal references. They can confirm your job-specific skills and work ethic.
  • Personal and Professional Networks: Tap into your network of family, friends, and acquaintances. Someone in your extended circle might hold a senior position and be willing to serve as a character reference, especially if they’re familiar with your work ethic, skills, or educational background.

Etiquette and Best Practices for Using References

When reaching out to professional references, conduct yourself with professionalism and respect.

These individuals can provide critical insights to prospective employers about your work ethic and abilities.

A male professional in his early thirties, looking grateful and engaged, making a phone call in a quiet, sunlit office. He's holding a list of names and contact information, symbolizing the act of personally thanking his references and discussing his job application progress.
  • Ask Permission: Before listing anyone as a reference, obtain their consent. Connect with previous work relationships, like a former manager, to ensure they are comfortable advocating for you.
  • Provide Details: Give your references context. Explain your current job search, the type of roles you are applying for, and why you believe they are a good reference.
  • Update Your References: Share your resume and a brief summary of your relevant recent activities to help them recall your strengths and past responsibilities.
  • Character vs. Professional References: If you lack recent work experience, character references can be an alternative. Choose individuals who can vouch for your skills and character, ideally from structured settings such as volunteer organizations.
Reference TypeWho to Consider Asking
Professional ReferencesFormer manager, Colleagues, Direct reports
Character ReferencesMentors, Community leaders, Academic advisors
  • Provide Necessary Information: Supply references with the job description and any pertinent application details. It helps them tailor their recommendation to the hiring manager‘s needs.
  • Practice Timeliness: Respect your references’ time. If you are aware of deadlines, let your references know well in advance so they can prepare.
  • Follow Up: After a reference has been contacted by a hiring manager, send a thank-you note to express your gratitude.

Adhering to these recommendations demonstrates respect for your references and ensures they are prepared to support your job application effectively.


Securing references after a period of unemployment involves a strategic approach.

  • Network Proactively: Reach out to former colleagues and supervisors.
  • Use social platforms like LinkedIn to reconnect.
  • Consider Alternate References: Think outside the traditional employment box.
  • Volunteer leaders, mentors, or course instructors can also vouch for your skills.
  • Be Transparent: Share your purpose and current goals when requesting a reference.
  • Provide them with your latest resume and specific job listings if possible.
  • Express Gratitude: Always thank individuals for their willingness to support you.

Remember, your references can play a pivotal role in your job search.

They provide potential employers with insight into your capabilities and character.

Keep these relationships strong and mutually beneficial for future opportunities.

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