Work It Out

Should you include low-level retail jobs on your resume?

Dear Work It Out,

I'm looking for a job in a new field, but I work in retail part-time to pay the bills. I was a teacher until I left the workforce to start a family. Then I worked at an education non-profit part-time and got my master's degree. Now I'm looking in the legal, human resources and higher education fields.

If you're searching for a professional job but had to take a lesser position to make ends meet, should you list that as your current job? I'm afraid that including my retail position on my resume would hurt me rather than help. What should I do?

This is a great question without a clear-cut answer. I've asked several recruiters and hiring managers what they think, and they are perfectly divided.

Some wholeheartedly believe there's no downside to including retail jobs on your resume and say it could help to show you've been keeping busy. Others fervently disagree, saying it may reek of desperation and actually highlight gaps in your resume.

Since you can't know which side your potential employer might be on, I'd recommend you play it safe and either downplay or exclude it altogether.

Don't get me wrong; I think there are some instances when it might make sense to include retail gigs on your resume. If you're looking for an entry-level or administrative job and don't have much professional experience, it could help to show you have some general work experience.

It might also be useful to include if your retail work is relevant to the career you're pursuing. For example, touting your elaborate window displays might reinforce your design chops, and promoting your retail sales accomplishments could bolster your sales and people skills.

The key word here is relevant. Your resume is a marketing tool to demonstrate why you're the best candidate for the job. Since you're just working for a paycheck while you look in your preferred field, your retail experience won't necessarily help tell your career story.

If you're concerned about gaps in your work experience, you could rearrange your resume to feature your "career highlights" instead of the standard reverse-chronological format. You could also use the Executive Summary section at the top to list your transferable skills and coursework and to express your enthusiasm for this new career path.

If you'd prefer to include but downplay the retail job, consider listing it under Additional Experience at the bottom of your resume. This might also be a good place to cite relevant volunteer work.

Whichever way you go, it might still come up in the interview itself, so be prepared to talk about your work ethic and the relevant skills you've picked up on the job. Most hiring managers won't hold it against you, as long as you effectively make the case that you're the best person for the job you're applying to.

Have a pressing career concern or question? Email me anonymously at workitout@cnbc.com. Submissions may be edited for length and clarity.

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