A patchwork of unrelated jobs can be a tough sell to prospective employers. The secret: Knowing what to leave out.
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I’m in my mid-30s and have had four management jobs where I’ve been what you might call a “fixer.” The jobs have been vastly different from each other, in different industries — including e-commerce, public relations, and event planning — but I’ve produced great results at each of them, taking three small businesses and one large one from the brink of collapse to great success.
Luckily, my reputation has gotten around in the city where I live now, and employers have sought me out with new opportunities. But I’m considering a move to another city on the other side of the country, where I’m an unknown quantity, and since my experience is so varied, I’m having difficulty explaining to companies there what it is that I do, exactly. Can you give me any pointers on how to build a resume that ties it all together? — Jack of 3 Trades
Dear Jack: For what it’s worth, you’ve got plenty of company. The recession bumped lots of people out of their old jobs and into new roles in unrelated fields. Taking any work they could get to pay the bills has left these folks with an assortment of experience that can be hard to tie together into a tidy narrative. Not only that, but millennials, that vast cohort just a few years your junior, are notorious for changing jobs every couple of years no matter what the economy is doing.
“I hear questions about how to ‘package’ a variety of jobs all the time, often from people in their 20s who have tried out lots of different things in hopes of finding their niche,” says Robert Hellmann, a New York City career coach. Partly through national career-development network The Five O’Clock Club, he has counseled managers at JP Morgan Chase JPM , the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, American Express axp , and elsewhere.
“Writing a resume that works can also be a challenge for people who have moved around a bit within one field, but who now want to change careers and do something else entirely,” Hellmann adds — including several of his current clients who aspire to quit Wall Street.
The key is to figure out what it is that you want to do now and then tailor your resume accordingly. “Once you’ve set a clear goal for your next move, getting there becomes much easier,” Hellmann says. That’s because “your resume and cover letter do not have to be a literal description of every job you’ve ever had. Instead, focus on what you can do for each prospective employer and emphasize only the aspects of your experience that are directly relevant.”
Hellmann notes that “the usual mistake people make is to throw all their experience out there and leave it up to employers to figure out how it fits. The trouble is, they won’t. You have to do that for them.”
Once you’ve decided what kind of job you want, Hellmann says, write a strong summary paragraph for the top of your resume that describes only those parts of your experience that relate to it. “That paragraph will also be the core of your cover letter, your two-minute ‘elevator speech,’ and what you talk about in job interviews,” Hellmann says. “Then, in the body of the resume, filter out anything that doesn’t connect to the job you’re trying to get.”
For example, one of Hellmann’s coaching clients worked for a real estate firm, mostly “making sure tenants paid their rent on time,” but he wanted to be a financial analyst. “He really liked the financial analysis courses he took in college, and he excelled at them, including winning a couple of awards for projects he had worked on,” Hellmann says. “So we wrote a resume around those projects and highlighted the roughly 20% of his real estate job that involved financial analysis.” The client got a financial analyst job.
Another client had been a teacher for four years and then a psychotherapist for over a decade, but wanted to go into sales. She and Hellmann wrote a resume with “just a one-line place-holder for those four years of teaching, so there wouldn’t be a gap in her work history. But the main emphasis was on the marketing and self-promotion that any self-employed person has to do,” Hellmann recalls. “She had succeeded in building enough buzz for her therapy practice that she grew her client base by 33% over two years. So, in her resume for sales jobs, she highlighted that and described how she did it.” She got hired as a salesperson.
Of course, the fact that you’re hoping to move to a different city where no one knows what you’ve accomplished does complicate matters a bit. But by laying some groundwork ahead of time — including doing some selective long-distance networking before you pack your bags — you can identify opportunities from afar. Social media, especially LinkedIn and Twitter, can be especially helpful for this purpose, but don’t overlook the possibility that your fans in your current city might know some movers and shakers in the town you’re going to. Ask them to recommend you, and you may be halfway to your next gig. Good luck.
Talkback: Have you ever looked for a job in a different field, or tried to explain a mixed bag of experience to a potential employer? What worked for you? Leave a comment below.