FORTUNE — Dear Annie: After almost 30 years in commercial banking, I took an early-retirement package during all the layoffs that went on in early 2009. It seemed like a good move at the time, but now I find I really miss working, and, since I’m still only in my early 50s, I’ve got at least another decade ahead in which to use my skills and experience. The problem is that five-year hole in my work history. I’ve spent the time taking some classes, doing a couple of consulting projects, and volunteering to help two local non-profits straighten out their finances. But my resume still shows no “real job” for those years, and the few employers I’ve met with recently have seemed to hold that against me. Do you and your readers have any suggestions on how to handle this? — Minding the Gap
Dear M.G.: Cold comfort though it may be, the number of long-term unemployed in the U.S. (defined as those out of work for six months or longer) seems stuck at about 3 million, so you can’t be the only one wondering. The first step in overcoming the stigma attached to that gap is one you may already be taking: Bring it up yourself, rather than waiting for interviewers to ask.
“Confront it,” advises Patty Prosser, CEO of HR and talent-management consultants OI Global Partners. “Bring that hiatus up right at the start of the conversation, and enumerate all the things you’ve been doing to keep your knowledge and skills current. The more specific real-life examples you can provide, and the more closely they align with the job you’re seeking, the better.”
Your volunteer experience may be especially relevant to finance jobs you’re applying for, but Prosser has seen plenty of job candidates downplay their unpaid achievements, or even neglect to mention them at all. “Making an impact in a volunteer organization often takes a very special set of ‘people’ skills that for-profit employers really value, so talk about that,” she says. “Even if you ‘only’ led a band-parents’ fundraiser at a child’s school, for example, our career coaches would encourage you to tell how you got people engaged and what the outcome was.”
The consulting projects you worked on probably helped keep you sharp, so talking about those is a good idea, too. Briefly describe any new skills you picked up and the results you accomplished — and don’t be surprised if those temporary gigs lead to an offer of another short-term project at a company where you’re job-hunting. “A growing number of employers prefer to bring on new hires on a contract basis before deciding whether to hire them full-time,” Prosser observes.
Ford R. Myers, an executive career coach and author of Get the Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring, agrees that tackling the issue head-on — as opposed, he says, to “just hoping they won’t notice” — is your best bet. “Be forthright about it,” he says. “Explain your early-retirement decision to interviewers in a professional, unapologetic way.”
At the same time, Myers suggests a few ways to make your five years between “real jobs” less conspicuous on paper. First, if you haven’t already done so, rewrite your resume using a functional format that groups all your past work together under different headings according to what you actually did (“Accounting,” “Management,” and so on), rather than when you did it. This “highlights your functional strengths, instead of focusing on dates of employment,” he says.
Since hiring managers skim most resumes (with or without chronological gaps) for no more than 10 seconds, Myers also urges that yours be as specific as you can make it. “Quantify everything you can, including retention rates, sales numbers, performance increase, and the number of people or projects you’ve managed,” he advises. “Wherever possible, use percentages, hard numbers, and dollar figures.”
Active verbs help too, he adds: “Words like ‘create,’ ‘launch,’ ‘initiate,’ ‘devise,’ and ‘conduct’ have a lot more impact than vague phrases such as ‘responsible for.’”
Try not to get discouraged if your job hunt takes a while, Myers adds. “Some employers will be open-minded and won’t see your five-year gap as an obstacle to hiring you,” he notes. “There will be others, however, who reject you purely on the basis of that gap. You need to expect this, and try not to take it personally.” Or, as a health care executive Patty Prosser met with recently put it, keep in mind that “if you were smart five years ago, you’re still smart now” — or maybe even smarter. Good luck.
Talkback: Have you been hired after a long spell of unemployment? What helped you the most, or didn’t? Leave a comment below.