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While it can be frustrating applying for jobs with a seemingly inconsistent work history under your belt, remember—you’re not the first person to live a real and complicated life. That time you spent in the Peace Corps? The summer you took off to get a certification? The years you spent away from work raising your kids? All of those gaps in paid work were pivotal points in your development, and you definitely learned life skills that are applicable to any workplace. But how do you convey that wealth of life experience to employers when it doesn’t attach neatly to a bullet point in your employment history?
I reached out to a group of hiring professionals to get their perspective on how to represent periods of unemployment in the best light. Their take? Don’t sweat the time you took off between your last two jobs to the point that it sabotages your confidence—your time away from work isn’t a roadblock to getting hired. Instead, focus on the depth of experience you’ve gained from both working and focusing on other pursuits. Let that confidence show on your resume, and the right employer will be happy to help get you started on the next chapter of your career.
Put Your Employment Gaps in Perspective
Before you can develop a game plan for handling any gaps in your employment history, you need to put them in perspective. Factors like when a pause occurred, how long it lasted for, and what you were doing during that time all affect how potential employers view breaks in employment.
Remember that recruiters, HR professionals, and hiring managers are trained to recognize and assess these factors, meaning an employment gap that can feel like an insurmountable hiring obstacle to you might be routine to an employer. Lauren McAdams, Hiring Manager, Career Consultant, and Lead Writer at online resume builder site ResumeCompanion.com, emphasizes that even long or multiple employment gaps on a resume don’t have to spell disaster for an applicant. “Hiring managers are used to seeing applicants with unconventional work experience and gaps in employment,” McAdams says. What’s crucial for you as an applicant is to frame your circumstances during times of unemployment in a way that emphasizes how you’re still the right person for the job.
According to Sheila Murphy, Partner and Co-Founder at flexible staffing firm FlexProfessionals, in cases where employers do become concerned about resume gaps—usually due to those gaps being recent or lengthy—their concerns center on a candidate’s current skills, job readiness, and commitment. So if that recent gap was due to taking time away from work to care for children, learn new job skills, or volunteer for a service project, it’s not like you took a year off to catch up on Netflix. Your personal growth during time away from paid work can be just as much an asset to a new workplace (and speak directly to things like readiness and commitment) as your paid job experience.
Tell Your Own Employment Gap Story
Brie Reynolds, Senior Career Specialist at flexible job listing site FlexJobs, says that when it comes to significant employment gaps, it’s worth being proactive and giving a heads up both in your cover letter and on your resume. Saying nothing about an unusually long time away from work will force employers to come up with their own explanations, and it’s a much better practice to tell your own story. Reynolds says that a brief explanation in your cover letter outlining the reason for a particularly noticeable gap ought to be enough. You want to give employers some context for your history but then go straight back to describing your skills and experience for the job at hand.
What exactly does owning your employment gaps look like? Laura MacLeod, HR Expert and Consultant at staff consultant site From the Inside Out Project, says that—first and foremost—positivity should be your watchword. “Cite classes you took, volunteer work you did, ways you kept up with the industry,” says MacLeod. “If you were away from work due to family issues (such as caregiving), you could highlight your enthusiasm for getting back in the game and mention things you look forward to achieving and ways you’re preparing for reentry.” It’s equally important to stay away from negativity. MacLeod warns against going astray and maligning former employers if you had a previous job you left abruptly, and she also cautions not to overshare when talking about the personal reasons for time away from work.
Own Your Employment Gaps On Your Resume and in Your Cover Letter
The typical resume that functions as a timeline may not work in your favor, and there’s no reason to be beholden to that format. Instead, Reynolds recommends going with a hybrid resume that is part functional and part chronological: “The top half of the resume can be filled with a ‘Summary of Qualifications’ section and a list of Key Competencies,” Reynolds says. “These are both great for stating your value proposition right up front.” After you’ve put the focus on your skills you can follow up with a chronological list of your work experience. When it comes to your gap, “be sure to include volunteering, short-term projects, and anything else that helped you stay active as a professional, even if it wasn’t paid work,” Reynolds says.
When it comes to addressing your gap in your cover letter, Murphy recommends putting your own spin on these samples:
“I took time off to raise my children, but I am now excited to re-enter the workforce and have support in place at home to be able to do so smoothly. While at home, I kept my marketing skills sharp by attending classes and keeping up with new trends and technologies, including social media platforms, digital marketing campaigns, and Adobe Creative Suite. I also volunteer at a local homeless shelter, maintaining their website and social media as well as serving as editor of their online newsletter. I see working with your organization as a way to put my marketing, writing, and creative skills to work in a new setting.”
“I took a break to deal with a family health issue, which is now resolved. I can’t wait to get back to work. The reason I found this particular job so appealing is . . .”
Use Your Gap as a Test of Your Potential Employer
Going in for a job interview is as much an opportunity for potential employers to get to know you as it is for you to get to know them, and April Klimkiewicz, Career Counselor and Owner at career coaching site bliss evolution, says that giving context for your gaps can actually identify if an employer is the right fit for you. The right employer will see value in your time away from work if you can explain why it was a choice you had to make. “It’s your life, and you did something important during the time you weren’t working,” Klimkiewicz says. “There’s no need to pretend your life is 100 percent work and nothing else,” and if a potential employer doesn’t agree, then you should keep walking. It’s likely a signal they won’t support other complexities of human life, and they may be too inflexible to be a fit.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.