Employment gaps raise red flags, but they can be overcome
Throughout your career, you may experience brief or extended gaps of employment. While hiring managers understand that employment gaps can be caused by a variety of reasons — such as illness, family situations, travel or the inability to find a new job — they can be perceived as red flags. They may imply you don’t possess the right qualifications or that you were unable to hold down steady job.
As a senior career counselor at University of Phoenix, I’m often asked how to deal with employment gaps on resumés when going through the application process. There are ways to address this situation that prove to hiring managers you remained focused on career growth, even when unemployed. I share five ideas to overcome employment gaps through filling the gap or explaining it during an interview:
1. Fill your gap with experiences that align with your education and career.
If you have employment gaps on your resumé or are anticipating a future gap, the first plan of action is to fill them with experience-generating activities that will further your career. One thing to consider is to pick something that will align with your past education and professional experience and also speak to the future trajectory of your career. At the same time, don’t choose something that will consume you, leaving you no time to search for a permanent position.
There are a few good options to consider. The most important, I believe, is education. You should never stop learning, and gaps provide an opportunity to return to school or learn something new. Volunteering can also serve as a viable filler. Countless worthwhile organizations need volunteers for professional functions.
2. Fill your gap with freelance consulting.
Freelance consulting is another option if you have a skill set that can be applied on such a basis. Even if you only have one client and work part time, it should be enough to fill a gap. As an added benefit, freelance consulting usually offers the flexibility you need to go on interviews and attend networking meetings.
Also, consider applying to temp agencies for work. It’s ideal if you can secure a position with an employer that could turn into a long-term career. If you’re successful, it will give you the inside track on what departments to pursue, how to apply and which individuals you need to speak with to make permanent employment a reality.
3. Eliminate months of employment and include just years.
If you happen to be out of a job for only a few months, consider eliminating months from the resumé altogether and just list your years of employment with each employer. Obviously, this will work more effectively if you were employed for a full year or more. This strategy will smooth out any brief employment gaps from your resumé. However, if you’re required to fill out an online application with a chronological history of each employer, you will need to include the months on the application, as in many cases those are mandatory fields.
4. Honesty — and enthusiasm — is the best policy.
While filling employment gaps displays your dedication to sharpening your skills and gaining necessary experience, hiring managers will still often ask you to explain why a break occurred in the first place. During the interview process, come prepared to explain the employment history on your resumé. If you left the workforce to raise children, care for a family member, engage in self-care activities or pursue additional education, don’t shy away from sharing this. It’s essential to inform potential employers and to emphasize (with enthusiasm) that you are ready to get back to work.
Explaining an employment gap can be more difficult when it’s the result of a termination. Honesty is essential, despite the temptation to stretch the truth. If you were laid off because your company closed or your position was eliminated, most interviewing managers will understand that reality. However, if you were fired, honesty is still the best policy. Avoid speaking poorly of your previous employer or saying too much. Keep your explanation simple and brief, such as, “It wasn’t a good fit,” and share what you personally learned and could have done better. This will allow you to demonstrate your commitment to being the best employee you can be.
5. Tell your own story.
After you’ve addressed the reasons for leaving your job, bring the conversation around to what you’ve been doing in the interim. Whether it’s education, volunteer work, unpaid work, freelance work or internships, each opportunity can be spun into a great story about moving your career forward. Furthermore, these types of career experiences can be included in the “Professional Experience” section of your resumé. Remember that these experiences “count,” even if they were unpaid.
Above all else, remember that employment gaps are just part of a natural winding and twisting career journey that at times can lead to better opportunities. Sometimes, these are necessities — like raising a child or taking a mental health break — or are aspects of your career journey, like returning to school to learn a new skill. Regardless of why an employment gap occurred, the important part is to be prepared to make the most of it by using the time to improve your life and career.
By Steven Starks, Career Counselor