How Far Back Does My Work Experience Need to Go?

For most job seekers, the work experience section of the resume contains the meat and potatoes of their background.  This is usually the biggest section on a resume, containing half to three quarters of the content.  It is easy to add content to your work experience until it is too long.  It is more difficult deciding what to delete.

Knowing how many years your resume should cover is a big question.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a standard answer.  There are some guidelines you can use.  If you have been in the work force for less than ten years, you need to list everything.  The last ten years of your work experience is required.

If you have been in the workforce for more ten years, you have some choices.  You need to present the last ten years in detail.  For many job seekers, presenting the last twenty years is a good idea.  Any experience beyond twenty years is much less important. 

Your most current experiences are the most significant to a hiring manager.  If you haven’t worked in a field or used a skill for more than ten years, it is highly unlikely this background will help you.  In my experience, I have found many job seekers don’t like hearing that a job they did very successfully more than ten years ago isn’t going to impress a hiring manager. 

An easy way to picture how a hiring manager will look at your experience is to consider how you would assess a surgeon doing a complicated life-saving operation on you.  Imagine this situation.  You need a bypass operation.  One of the doctors you talk to hasn’t performed a surgery in the last 15 years.  In fact, he shifted 15 years ago into hospital administration and hasn’t practiced medicine since then.  He now wants to get back into operating room and has told you he is confident he will be able to perform the surgery successfully.

The doctor may be capable of doing the surgery.  Technology in the field has changed and his skills have gotten rusty, but that doesn’t guarantee he will fail.  He might do a great job.  Would you hire this doctor to save your life?  Probably not.  If he was the only doctor available and you would die if you didn’t hire him, I expect he would get the job, but not if there were any alternatives.

Hiring managers look at a job seeker’s background in a similar way. The skills used in the recent past – the last five to ten years – are the most significant.  As you write your resume, you need to present this timeframe in detail.  Beyond that, you can summarize your experience very briefly and even omit positions in the distant past.