How to Avoid Getting Rusty

With the average unemployment stint of five months expected to explode, how can job searchers keep their skills up to snuff?

Published: May 21, 2020

The first time Hannah tried to draft a press release, after being out of a job for four months, it took her double the time to write the piece—which then also received some heavy edits from her boss. “I was surprised at how hard it was to get back into the swing of things,” she says. “Before, I could just bang it out.”

Many workers who are now among the millions of unemployed may find they’ll have an experience similar to Hannah’s in the not-too-distant future. While the average duration of unemployment was about 23 weeks in the spring of last year, experts say the pandemic will cause that duration to skyrocket. Already, the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in March extended unemployment coverage for an additional 13 weeks on top of regular state coverage, as all gains made in the labor market in the last decade have been wiped out. Large companies like Google and Chevron—which traditionally were always hiring—are pulling back on finding new talent. And even open positions still advertised on job-hiring sites most likely will go to internal candidates in the current environment, as HR professionals look for ways to work with what they already have.

The 'forgetting curve' theory, developed by a German psychologist in the late 1800s, shows how information is lost over time when there’s no attempt to retain it.

“It’s inevitable that some people are going to get a bit rusty,” says Gabrielle Lennox, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Indeed, the aptly named “forgetting curve” theory, developed by a German psychologist in the late 1800s, shows how information is lost over time when there’s no attempt to retain it. So while you look for the next great gig, here are some tips on how to keep your skills in shape.

Find the right motivation.

It’s a phrase we often hear when job hunting: update your skills. But with plenty of online classes out there to learn new skills—or keep current ones intact—it can be overwhelming to figure out which path to take. “We all learn in different ways, so it’s important to know if you’ll be happy when you finish a webinar or if the journey, just learning something, will be enough,” says David Ginchansky, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.


It may sound counterintuitive: when you’ve been laid off, why would you think to give away your services for free? But doing so can help keep your skills sharp and also make you feel better—and more connected—during an anxious time. Indeed, studies have shown that people who volunteer feel more socially connected, which can help ward off depression and anxiety. So if your friend is designing a new website for her business and needs your keen eye for editing, consider lending a hand gratis.

Make it fun.

Matt, a graphic designer who has been furloughed for several weeks, decided to use his artistic skills to write a book with his kids. “They made up the story, and I drew it,” he says. “It was a blast and it killed some time.” It wasn’t until after the storybook was complete that he also realized the project was keeping his skills sharp. 

Indulge in a break.

It’s important to remember that “the current world situation is affecting all of us in different ways, whether it’s anxiety or a lack of motivation,” Lennox says. “It’s OK to not think about work or your job search all the time.” So maybe next time you make a to-do list with 10 things on it and tackle only three items, “see that as an accomplishment instead of a failure,” Lennox says.

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