Everything from experiencing a layoff to attending to a health crisis can lead a job seeker to have an employment gap on a resume. Women, however, often find themselves with breaks in their career trajectory more often than men because they add such factors as taking time off to raise children or provide care for elderly parents.
This type of gender-based interruption to work history became highly noticeable last year. As the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to families, more than two million women left the workforce
As women go back to the job market, they worry about how prospective employers will view their absences. The temptation exists to gloss over gaps by burying information.
However, that can confuse an already pressed-for-time hiring manager and lead her to other resumes.
"People leave the workforce for all sorts of legitimate reasons. Most employers will understand your situation if you address it directly, preventing the hiring manager from filling in the blanks," says Kate Williamson, founder of Scientech Resumes LLC, which specializes in career marketing and personal branding for STEM professionals.
On the flip side, some candidates present too much detail. Employers want to know why they should hire somebody, not hear a life story. The focus needs to stay on what you bring to the table.
There are ways for a job seeker to address employment gaps on a cover letter or resume to help in your job search.
Tips for writing a cover letter that explains an employment gap
A cover letter is the perfect place to craft a short and straightforward explanation of your employment gaps. The trick is to stay brief and factual. Avoid any language that sounds apologetic about the absence. Instead, give a simple explanation of this part of your history and move on to why you're a good fit for the position at hand.
Here are some suggestions for common situations:
"Emphasize the valuable experience you gained during this time. This could include reducing monthly expenses (budget management), overseeing home renovation projects (project management), or chairing a school committee, coaching a youth sports team, or managing volunteers (leadership and teamwork)," Williamson says.
Sample language: From 2015 to 2020, I took time off to raise young children and manage the household. During this time, I oversaw two large home renovation projects while a full-time parent. I also chaired the Sunnybrook Preschool fundraising initiative, which I'm proud to say exceeded our initial goal and enabled the purchase of additional playground equipment.
"You don't need to provide details of your illness," Williamson says. "Emphasize that you've fully recovered or what you're doing to fully recover so that your job performance won't be affected. Keep the focus on how you kept busy if you were well enough to do so. For example, did you pursue professional training, take on freelance work, or volunteer?"
Sample language: I left XYZ Industries in 2018 to manage and recover from a health issue. During this time, I enrolled in a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt course and read industry journals to keep up with new and emerging FDA guidelines.
Whether for financial reasons or because they miss social or intellectual stimulation, plenty of retirees decide to reenter the workforce. Acknowledge your absence and the activities during it that kept you sharp. Employers appreciate both solid work history and present-day relevance.
Sample language: I retired from ZYX Inc. in 2019 after 30 years of service. Since then, I've remained active in our industry as a mentor for students at the local community college. I've also honed my leadership abilities and organizational skills as president of the St. Peter's Church Men's Club.
Realize that layoffs happen all the time. Employers know plenty of talented people lose jobs due to economic circumstances. Address the situation matter-of-factly, and move on to your selling points.
Sample language: As you may have recently read, ABC Company announced a restructuring program. Unfortunately, I was 1 of 99 employees laid off as a result. I have had time to reassess my strengths and am ready and well-situated to explore opportunities that leverage my background in [insert key areas of expertise].
Have an old work gap? Don't bother using valuable cover-letter space to talk about an absence that happened 7-10+ years ago. Most employers won't care.
Tips for writing a resume that explains an employment gap
Choose the right resume format
Probably the most effective way to smoothing over an employment gap is choosing the right resume format. Just like a cover letter, a resume should bring a candidate's most impressive qualifications to the surface. A work gap may be a part of your history, but it needn't be emphasized.
To that end, career experts traditionally suggested people with gaps try a functional resume. This style emphasizes skills over work history by pulling the former to the top of the document. With these qualifications standing out, former jobs (and the gap) assume a minor place with little detail. Enthusiasm for this format, however, isn't always shared by recruiters and hiring managers.
"Many hiring managers and HR professionals are immediately suspicious when they see a functional resume, and they often find them frustrating because of the extra effort involved in piecing together the applicant's career history," says Kelly Donovan, principal of Kelly Donovan & Associates, a firm that works with job seekers nationwide. "Not knowing if a particular accomplishment took place five years ago or 20 years ago makes it harder to decide whether you're the right fit for a position."
Donovan also notes that ATSs(applicant tracking systems) are designed for chronological resumes. Depending on the system, the ATS might not see the information from your functional resume the way you intended.
Some job seekers opt for a combination resume, also known as the hybrid resume format. It blends elements of a functional resume with the easy-to-follow organization of a chronological one. Applicants list their greatest strengths and qualifications upfront through a professional summary and a skills section. A detailed work history then follows.
Own the gap
One option on a chronological or combination resume is to simply compile entries with dates and responsibilities when presenting work history. A hiring manager may or may not notice the unaccounted for time. If desired, a candidate can address the gap in the cover letter or be ready to answer questions if interviewed.
Donovan prefers "owning" the gap in your work history. She states, "I often use terms like 'working sabbatical' or 'family sabbatical' along with start and end dates. Within this listing, you can briefly describe what the sabbatical was for, along with anything career-related or noteworthy you did during that time, even if it only represented a small portion of your time."
For instance, she notes that if you've been out of the workforce for medical reasons for a year or less, you could say "personal sabbatical" and incorporate any relevant professional development, contract work, or volunteering during that time. For a long gap of several years, you could say something like "personal sabbatical for a health issue that is now fully resolved."
The bottom line
Each job candidate needs to decide for herself when submitting applications how she feels most comfortable dealing with an employment gap. Remember that all of your experiences contribute to who you are today. If you can confidently present yourself as someone worth getting to know, the chances are that employers will focus more on your future than on your past.