When you start thinking about finding a new job, having employment gaps in your work history can raise a red flag — both for resume screeners and for your own self-confidence. For employers, questions arise as to the real reasons for these gaps. As for job seekers themselves “Will they want me? Should I even try?” come to mind.
I won’t tell you that gaps don’t matter. At the very least, they will need to be handled. And somehow given a less noticeable focus in your communications with the company. But there may actually be ways to make resume gaps work to your advantage. Or at least help minimize any of those doubts.
So much of job search is about perception and initial impressions. And just as in any good marketing campaign — job search after all is marketing — you can use your job search tools (and connections) to help accentuate the positive while also minimizing the negative.
[NOTE: I hope you take the time to read all of this; I know it’s a lot. But at least please make sure you scroll to the bottom for the extra hint. It could make all the difference in helping give you a fresh start — and added self-confidence!]
Tricky employment gap situations
There are any number of situations that can lead to resume gaps. Here are a few of the more common ones. Feel free to add your own below:
- You’ve been out of work for a long time. Maybe over a year. Maybe many years.
- Having raised your kids, you’re returning to the world of work.
- You’re embarrassed by / trying to hide your last job(s) and so leave them off.
- You took time off to pursue non-paying interests.
- You had a business that failed, and you prefer not to talk about it.
- You went back to school, but have no degree to show for it.
- You’re a serial job hopper with several gaps in between. (Having been one myself, I can assure you that this is not incurable.)
Remedies for employment gaps
First, I want to be clear about this. There will always be employers who see a resume gap and toss the resume. No matter what you do. No matter how amazing you are. With the possible exception of you finding a good personal connection to them to help change their minds. (More on that later.)
Now let’s look again at the situations above and see what can (and can’t) be done to help:
1. You’ve been out of work for over a year. Maybe many years.
REMEDY: The good news is that many employers now understand that gaps do not mean that something is wrong with you. And so many will make allowances if you can show them why you are a great fit for them now.
But the trick is to also show that you’ve been productive during that time: volunteering, education (especially related to the job), freelancing, successful project, or something to help them see you as a doer who creates opportunity rather than one who sits and waits.
You can also get good fresh references in many of these options where people are involved. Or even find connections to job possibilities. No small thing.
2. Having raised your kids, you’re returning to the world of work.
REMEDY: If the employer isn’t open to this as a good reason for a lengthy gap, then they probably aren’t the right one for you anyway. But again, if you can add to the story by highlighting things you’ve done such as projects you’ve accomplished, volunteer work, relevant education, or even helping out with a small business on the side that may help you stand out as a doer.
Not that raising a family isn’t plenty of doing and loaded with transferable skills. (Please check that out … it can make a huge difference in how you present yourself and word your resume.) But you are marketing yourself, so filling out the picture of who you are can help.
Whether conscious or not, an employer may find themselves a bit more impressed with some extras, especially if you can help them see the fit with the job they have — even if only admiring your resourcefulness and determination.
3. You’re embarrassed by / trying to hide your last job(s).
REMEDY: Sometimes a job you had didn’t work out. Maybe something you tried that was off the beaten career track. And now you want to get back to finding a “real” job.
You can either leave it off completely and explain it with any of the above gap-filler possibilities. (Admission time again: I’ve done that.) Or you can leave it on, and find a way to explain why it attracted you and what you’ve learned that brings you to their job opening now.
Always, as best you can, keep the new job in mind and help connect the dots from where you’ve been and / or what you’ve learned along the way. And highlight concrete skills you do have that strongly match this job. (Your resume and cover letter can be critical here.)
4. You took time off to pursue non-paying interests.
REMEDY: This is a lot like the one directly above, and I offer the same suggestions. Really make it clear that this career diversion is in the past and only strengthens your interest in the new job. Or something like that.
Of course, if the other interest can connect well to the job you want, all the better. Just have a good story about why you prefer this job & company at this point in your life.
5. You had a business that failed, and prefer not to talk about it.
REMEDY: Again, as in the last two, you can either find a way to hide this employment gap completely, or help them see how that experience got you here. And how it makes you a stronger candidate. Or at least makes you more eager to take on this new challenge without regrets.
Some possible things you might say include: you learned from it; you had to try it; and you now know you never want to do that again. But it also helped you think clearly about what you do want now. And remember to have some good whys that point to this new job, including how to apply what you experienced.
6. You went back to school with no degree to show for it.
REMEDY: If the courses can help you in this new job, then degree doesn’t matter. In fact the courses can go a long way to helping. You took time to help strengthen your skills. But if the classes have nothing to do with the job in question, then it might raise questions about how long you’ll stay if you get the job.
Are you just stopping to earn money and then plan to go back to something you truly love that has no relation to this job? Even if true, that won’t get you the offer. So try to find one of the remedies above that fit. You need to assure them that this is exactly what you want now — after having had time to try something else
6. You’re a serial job hopper with several gaps in between.
REMEDY: I have been a job hopper, or at least it would seem that way if I didn’t make the effort to help my resume & cover letter tell a different story. Short jobs can be part of freelancing or consulting. Or temp work.
And your resume can use any of those labels to help keep them from standing out so much. By grouping several short duration jobs under a single label, you can help reframe the way an employer receives your information. There are also different ways to organize your resume (chronologically, by function, where education is located) that might help.
Put your resume to work
As mentioned above, your resume and cover letter are your strongest marketing tools — apart from human connections (see below) — especially if you have employment gaps. How your information is presented can strengthen or weaken you in an employer’s eyes from the very first impression— and that continues even after your interview.
A well-written resume and cover letter can do a lot to minimize the effect of gaps and emphasize your matching strengths. Some posts to help you grab and keep an employer’s attention:
Networking, networking, networking!
And for all of these employment gap situations, and in general for any job search and career, the best thing you can do for yourself is find networking connections. Strong ones.
Although you want to start this early on and continue throughout your career, even at the last minute some useful connections might be found using LinkedIn, the internet, and your own existing connections. Some tips to help:
More thoughts on employment gaps
I know this post is a long one and offers lots of ideas. And I hope at least some of my suggestions will help you. But the most important thing for you to remember is that gaps on their own will not stop you from finding a job.
True … they may make it take longer. Or keep you from certain employers. But the right employer will see what you can offer them — if you help them see it. Or if you take some actions that help them see the fit better.
EXTRA HINT: A few quick online courses or even cramming some self-taught articles into your head targeted to the new job can help catch an employer’s attention. And present you in a new light.