Mind the Gap! The Best Approach for Addressing Gaps in Your Employment History

Life happens. Even the hardest working of us have unexpected health issues, or aging parents who need care, or decide to stay home to raise young children — until  circumstances change and the time is right to re-enter the workforce. There are also those or us who are recent college graduates, or who have been laid off (an increasingly common scenario in today’s economy) — even for people actively job hunting, finding the right position can take significant chunk of time.

Seeing these times of unemployment laid out in black and white on your resume can be disheartening. You may wonder if these “gaps” will prevent you from even being considered for employment.

The good news is that recruiters, hiring managers, and supervisors of all stripes can actually be pretty understanding about resume gaps. They have lives, too, after all. The key is to address your employment gaps from the get-go. Then to convince them that your skills, experience, and positive attitude make you the ideal candidate for the job. Here’s how to do just that:

While You Were Away

Explaining the reason for the gap is one thing, but employers will also be looking long and hard and what you did with your time to stay professionally engaged. You will need to be ready to tell the story of how you kept your skills sharp or learned new ones. Any volunteer work (e.g. your children’s school or local nonprofits) can be relevant. Think about how skills like time-management, fund-raising, bookkeeping, networking, logistics, etc. were used in these responsibilities and be prepared to emphasize what you accomplished in those areas.

If you are currently unemployed, now is the time to get into some activities — beyond job hunting — that show you are being productive and trying to stay in the game by learning new skills. These can and should include things like being involved in professional organizations, taking continuing education classes, freelancing, and volunteering in the community.

Be Up Front

It’s best to address the gap in work experience head on rather than try to cover it up or paint it as more than it was (for example, don’t describe your break as “on sabbatical” unless it really was; meaning, you were fully paid while you were taking it and had research or a project to complete while doing so). Be direct and to the point about why you have a gap and what you did while out of the work force.

Your cover letter is the best place to address this right away. In concise terms state the reason for the gap and list skills you developed during that time.

Your Resume

Avoid a “functional resume” — one that showcases skills but doesn’t include work dates — because this style may appear to be trying to hide something. A “hybrid” style is better. Write a top passage (e.g. “Executive Summary”) that highlights your skills and specific accomplishments. Then follow with a chronological work history to place these and accomplishments into context.

Also avoid any cutesy attempts to describe your time off as an official job. For example, of course parenting can be as demanding as a full-time job; but describing yourself as  “Assistant CEO and Chief Laundry Officer” won’t go very far in having your resume taken seriously.

Be Prepared to Talk

Be confident and communicate persuasively about what occupied your time during the gap and what you picked up from these experiences. Do so in a well-crafted — don’t go on and on! — description that you have practiced a few times before the interview. If being let go is the reason for a gap, be honest about it, of course, but don’t make negative comments about the company or your former boss. You will be better regarded if you are gracious about the opportunity and focus on what you learned from the experience. Turn the conversation as soon as possible to what you know about the industry, the organization, and how you can contribute to their success.

Opportunities are definitely out there, even for those who have significant career gaps. Understand that you may need to put extra work into networking to get your foot in the door. Take notes and learn from each of your interview experiences as you go along. If you are well-prepared, honest, and positive, you can stand head and shoulders above the crowd.

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