In terms of how an employment gap physically “looks” on a resume, obviously you can’t make the gap disappear – but sometimes I’ve seen candidates put a lengthy explanation for the employment gap right on their resume. I’m not a big proponent of this. Obviously a candidate needs to be ready to address questions about the employment gap but I don’t think the physical resume itself is the best place to try to answer such questions.
Also, I have often found it helpful to get a more complete picture of what transpired during the employment gap. So, some of the questions I like to ask candidates include:
• Did you do any freelance or consulting work while you were between positions?
• During that gap, what did you do to remain current in your field?
• Did you do anything to further develop your career during that time i.e. seminars, certification, courses?
If the candidate is able to answer any of the above questions in the affirmative, it might help you to reassure a potential employer that the candidate at least took steps to “stay in the game”.
I have also found that sometimes candidates have an employment gap on their resume because they underestimated how difficult it would be to find another position. This was particularly pronounced when the recession first hit. For example, I saw numerous candidates lose valuable time in their job search because they weren’t willing to be flexible on salary, title, commuting distance, etc. Only after being out of work for several months did they realize they needed to be more flexible. In other words, an otherwise solid candidate might have made some unfortunate decisions in how they approached their job search. If this is indeed the case, this might also help reassure a potential employer.
The truth is that for most of us, careers are not a linear progression, and things happen that leave us with an employment gap on our resume.
Maybe it takes a year or more to find a new job in a tough market, or we need to leave the workforce to care for an ailing parent, or we want a life where we take extended time off every now and then for some adventure travel.
How to handle breaks in employment takes a little thought, but there are ways to put it in a good light.
Here are some options for handling any gaps you might have.
1. Prepare a concise response about the gap.
The way you tell the story is the way people will understand it, so spend some time crafting your explanation for your time off. Make it short, informative, and clearly show that it was a positive experience in the long run. Whether your break was for a trip to volunteer in South America, or a stint in prison, you need a smooth, practiced and optimistic way to talk about it.
Aim for three sentences: the first says what happened, the second says something positive that you got from the experience, and the third tells them why you’re now focusing on what’s next for you.
Then practice that story until it becomes second nature, and stick to it.
2. Don’t make a big deal of it.
If you take it in stride, they probably will, too. Don’t start off your cover note talking about it, and don’t bring it up in the interview until you’re asked about it. Give your explanation in a straightforward non-apologetic way.
3. Consider putting a one-sentence explanation in your cover note.
If you’ve taken time out of the work force, you can say why in your cover note. “For the past year, I’ve been in Florida helping my parents to sell their properties and relocate to a retirement community” or “I’ve just returned from a 4,000 bike ride across Mongolia” explains a recent gap instead of leaving them wondering if you’re just unemployable.
4. On the resume, if it’s an obvious gap, list it like a job.
People read resumes looking for a chronological flow, and you can add an employment gap as its own entry. “2004-2009 Full-time parent until my children were in school” answers the question before it’s asked.
5. Use a hybrid resume format that highlights accomplishments and skills first.
Use the functional format for the first half to show all the categories of what you’ve done, and then put the chronological part on the second page, listing the actual jobs and companies you’ve worked for, so the reader will be sold that you did it before worrying about when you did it.
6. Use testimonials to sell yourself before they get to your experience.
Readers scan your resume from top to bottom, so if it starts with some endorsements saying “John is one of the best project managers I’ve ever worked with” and then highlights your project management skills well, you’ll already be seen as a project manager before they ever get to the dates that show it’s been three years since you did that, so it’s less likely to be a deal breaker.
7. Visually downplay dates on your resume.
List just the years, and not the months, and things can flow better. For instance, a gap between February 2007 and November 2008 is almost two years, but if you list your previous job as ending in 2008 and the next one starting in 2009, that gap disappears. (It may come up in the interview, of course, so be prepared to talk about it.)
8. Sort your experience by category, not date.
If your career has had different types of jobs or companies, you can reorganize them into categories. So, for instance, you might have “Teaching Experience” separated from “Administration Experience” which can make any gaps in the dates less obvious.
9. List any volunteer, consulting or part-time work you did.
Just because you weren’t working full-time doesn’t mean you weren’t active (I hope). Fill in gaps with volunteer work, any consulting you did (even if you weren’t paid for it) and any part-time work you took on. Helped a friend with their marketing? Managed the annual fundraiser for your garden club? Be creative, and you can find a story that fills just about any gap.
10. Cluster consulting jobs together.
If you took short-term or part-time jobs, bundle them together in one category with one wider date range, and list individual representative positions underneath. This works for consultants too, who might have a series of positions of up to a year; consolidating it into one listing looks more stable and gaps between projects are less obvious.
11. Talk about what you accomplished during your time off.
Employers want to hire people who are continuously improving themselves regardless of their circumstances. Online software training, night classes, writing a book, getting ready for a marathon, starting a special program at your kid’s school – these things show that your time was well spent, even if you weren’t employed.
12. Show that your time off has made you more motivated to get back to work.
Often a long break from working leaves us hungry to get back into the daily challenge of a job. Talk about what you missed about working, and what you’re looking forward to having as part of your life again.