If you’ve been away from the workforce for a little while (or a long while), and you’re now looking for a way to step back into the game and pick up where you left off, you’re not alone. Few people start working the day after college and continue uninterrupted until they retire. Life just doesn’t happen like that.
For that reason, explaining a gap in employment when you build a resume or cover letter, or when you interview, is something you might need to do at some point. So how do you go about it?
Common Reasons for Employment Gaps
Simply put, an employment gap is any period of time you were between jobs, but it’s usually understood to be an extended period of time that’s longer than a typical job search in your industry, perhaps six months or more.
Voluntary Employment Gaps
Voluntary employment gaps occur when you choose to take time away from the workforce. This can happen for the following reasons:
- You chose to take a break to travel or volunteer
- You took time off to go back to school or improve your skillset
- You stepped away from the workforce to raise children
Involuntary Employment Gaps
Involuntary employment gaps occur when you didn’t choose to take time off but it happened anyway. This type of employment gap can happen for the following reasons:
- You were fired or laid off, such as during a recession, downsizing, or corporate relocation
- You took time off to manage a health issue (your own or a family member’s)
- Your job search is taking longer than expected
Explaining a Gap: Why It’s Necessary
Employment gaps are more commonly called “resume gaps” because these breaks in employment stand out on chronological resumes. Since recruiters scan resumes for dates of employment, these gaps will be easy to spot.
Unexplained resume gaps are suspicious to recruiters. Why weren’t you employed for such a long period of time, they wonder. Is there something about you they should know, and is that something a reason to avoid hiring you?
If the answer to those questions isn’t made immediately clear, recruiters will often just move on to the next candidate, which is why explaining a gap in your cover letter or resume is so critical. Explaining a gap helps make it immediately clear that the break you took from the workforce is nothing the recruiter should be concerned about, and renders it a non-issue.
7 Tips for Explaining a Gap In Employment
1. Recognize whether you have an employment gap
Look through your work history, going back as far as 10 to 15 years. Were there any periods between jobs that were longer than 6 to 9 months? If you have a gap shorter than that, recruiters will often assume you were job searching, and they will not focus on it. If it’s longer than 6 to 9 months, you’ll need to prepare an explanation to prevent any misunderstanding.
2. Don’t try to hide it
All too often, jobseekers immediately assume any employment gaps are bad and then try to hide them, often by switching from a chronological format to a functional resume format, which emphasizes achievements and de-emphasizes dates. Unfortunately, when a recruiter sees a functional resume, it’s almost a reflex for them to wonder what the candidate is trying to hide.
3. Emphasize that the gap was voluntary
The biggest gap on my own resume is when I made a transcontinental move. Just the simple fact that I chose to leave my job and explained why – to make a big (and easily provable) life change – removed any suspicion about why I was out of work during that period, and caused zero harm to my chances of getting hired.
4. Seek empathy if a gap was involuntary
All too often, employment gaps are caused by situations that are out of your control. Recessions, industry chaos, health issues (your own or someone else’s) — all can be spoken about honestly and recruiters will understand. Many people have been impacted by those same things in the past.
Even a prolonged job search can be explained. Few of us have been formally taught how to job search, so it can be understandable that your job search took longer than usual, especially if you are new to the workforce.
5. Make the gap a non-issue
Explaining a gap to a recruiter is ultimately about convincing them that the gap doesn’t negatively impact your ability to succeed at the job they’re looking to fill.
On the contrary, if you spent your time out of the workforce adding value to your candidacy by improving your skills, learning new ones, growing your professional brand, etc., you MUST make sure that recruiters know about it.
6. Mention it on your cover letter or resume
A cover letter should tempt its reader to take the next step and read your resume. If you learned a skill the employer needs and that otherwise wouldn’t appear on your resume, include a mention in your cover letter of the new knowledge you acquired during the gap time.
On your resume, explaining a gap is easier when you have something positive to highlight, such as time spent in professional courses improving your abilities. Mention your new skills in the Skills or Education section of your resume.
If your time between jobs was spent doing something else, simply include a short mention in your work history with the relevant dates (month and year, or just year), such as “health-related sabbatical.”
It’s even better to simply list “Job search” (with the dates you were searching) than to leave the gap unmentioned at all. That shows honesty.
7. Prepare to explain it during job interviews
Practice an explanation that’s simple and short, but also truthful and complete. Put yourself in your potential employer’s position to determine exactly how your gap might concern them and address those concerns directly.
When you’re explaining a gap, make it clear that while you’ve been away you’ve kept on top of changes in the field. Explain the ways you’ve stayed in contact with your professional network during that time, note any courses you completed, or any skills you learned. Then move on; the focus should be on what you’ll bring to the table.
Your most difficult challenge won’t be explaining a gap in employment (or apologizing for it), so don’t dwell on that. Instead, focus on conveying your skillset, professional readiness, and cultural fit.
Know that your resume and cover letter must be customized to every job advertisement your respond to. Check out the resume and cover letter resources at LiveCareer, and make sure your documents stack up!