Job applicants have a whole host of things to be concerned about when crafting their resumes, as they do everything they can to highlight their strengths and convince potential employers that they’re right for the job.
Many struggle with things like employment gaps, however, and wonder how those periods of joblessness should be addressed. You can handle those gaps with ease once you learn a few simple strategies for dealing with a less-than-consistent work history. We’ll show you how to effectively fill in employment gaps on a resume.
When are Gaps a Concern?
First, it’s important to recognize the types of gaps that are critically important in any resume. There are two factors that really make gaps worrisome for hiring personnel: the time period in which you were unemployed, and the length of time you were away from the workforce.
For example, if you were unemployed for a month or two twenty years ago, odds are that your prospective employer won’t care. On the other hand, if the gap was more recent and longer in duration, you’d better have a plan to deal with it.
The reason for the gap matters too. If you have a habit of quitting your job on a whim, you’re going to have a more difficult time explaining why your work history is so unreliable. If you took time off to care for your mother, travel, or go back to school, that gap will be far easier to explain.
How Long Is Too Long Of An Employment Gap?
There is no exact answer for this as everybody’s situation is different. The biggest hurdle to overcome with employment gaps is explaining them to the employer in an effective way. You need to show that your time off was either a necessity or helped expand your knowledge in some way.
Here is what career expert Allison Green says regarding the length of unemployment:
Using the proper resume format is also really important when you have employment gaps.
We wrote a related post here: How Long is too Long Of An Employment Gap
The Best Resume Format For Employment Gaps
One of the best ways to deal with employment gaps is to make sure that you use the right resume format. In instances where you have a number of gaps, the functional resume is ideal.
That’s because it focuses on your actual skills and abilities rather than your detailed work history. Yes, you still need to list your work history, but that list can be created in a way that minimizes any gaps. More on that in a moment.
With the functional resume, you get to highlight relevant skills. That gives you an opportunity to incorporate those important keywords from the employer’s job posting, while shaping your resume in a way that demonstrates just how qualified you are to do the job at hand. It also allows you to cite abilities that you’ve utilized in previous jobs that might not be as self-evident if the prospective employer was just reading a dry list of your previous job titles.
To use it effectively, focus on those skills that best match the ones needed for the job you’re seeking. That can help you to properly position yourself for the new position by making it easy for the employer to identify the specific value that you can bring to his or her company.
Here is an example of the functional resume format which is great for dealing with time off work.
You can see more examples and information on our post regarding resume formats.
Dealing with Gaps in Your Employment History List
As for that list of jobs that you’ve held, it goes near the end of your functional resume. But how do you handle it? After all, won’t those gaps still show up?
In some instances, yes. If you’ve had periods of unemployment lasting for more than a year, it can hard to minimize them – even in a functional resume.
There are some strategies that you can use to accomplish that, however:
- First, be honest. Don’t change dates in an attempt to stretch out periods of employment so that they cover up any gaps. It’s unethical, and there’s a good chance that the employer will find out. There are better ways to address the problem.
- Being honest doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be creative. For example, if you spent an eleven-month period of unemployment learning several new computer programs or volunteering at the local shelter, include that in your timeline. If you were taking care of your sick grandmother and managing her affairs, list that just as you would any job – and be sure to describe it in terms that fit with the rest of your employment narrative. “Served as caregiver and estate manager for elderly relative, handling medical and financial concerns” has a nicer ring to it than “time off to take care of grandma.”
- Many gaps can be minimized by providing only the years that you were employed, rather than the more detailed month-and-year option. That can help to cover short gaps. Consider this gap, for instance:
November, 2010 – June, 2015, Acme Coyote Supply
February, 2008 – January, 2010, ABC Widget Company
Presented in that format, there is an obvious gap of at least ten months between those two jobs. Employers could immediately focus on that gap. Now, consider the same work history listing, with the months removed:
2010-2015, Acme Coyote Supply
2008-2010, ABC Widget Company
When the months are excluded, that same work history has no apparent gap. Obviously, longer periods of time away from the workforce cannot be minimized in this manner, but for shorter gaps, this works perfectly.
When You Have One Major Gap
If you have an otherwise strong history of employment that is marred by one noticeable gap, you can often use the chronological resume format. You should still be honest when listing your work experience, and will need to explain that major gap so that the employer understands why you were unemployed. As you’ll see below, the cover letter can sometimes be the perfect place to address this issue.
Let Your Cover Letter Explain the Gaps
Many experts recommend that you commit to using part of your cover letter to deal with gaps. Your cover letter is your introduction to the prospective employer, and your first opportunity to make a positive impression – but that also means that it can be an ideal place to dispense with potential distractions so that the hiring manager can spend his time focusing on the value you offer. You can see our post here on writing an awesome cover letter for more information.
Don’t Dwell on Negatives!
Don’t lose sight of the positive benefits that you enjoyed in any previous situation. Did a personal tragedy disrupt your life and send you off in search of new meaning for your life? Skip the tragedy and focus on what you learned from that sabbatical. Did your company shelter its doors, resulting in a lengthy period of unemployment? Give less emphasis to the closing and more to how you used your time on the unemployment line to make yourself an even more valuable hire.
Remember, you want to be positive. Your potential employer doesn’t care that your former employer’s third wife embezzled the company’s accounts and moved to Panama with her 18-year-old paramour. All that hiring manager wants to know is what you’ve done since then to make yourself a worthy addition to his company.
Focus on Strengths
Your cover letter should serve as a primer for your functional resume. It should emphasize your strengths. The fact is that hiring managers really only care about how your abilities and character can benefit their companies. Your cover letter needs to draw a straight line between your skills and the company’s bottom line.
Before even attempting to use your cover letter to explain work gaps, be sure that you understand what your cover letter is designed to accomplish. It’s not just an introduction to the employer; it’s a sales letter – and the product you’re trying to sell is you!
With that in mind, try to de-emphasize small gaps, and quickly explain larger periods away from the workplace. How you do that will likely depend upon the reason for the gap, and what you accomplished in your time off. Here are two examples of the types of explanations that might be useful for your unique situation.
Explaining Gaps in Employment Examples
Parental leave/caring for kids:
In this situation you should mention the that you took time off to care for a child but also mention something productive you did that would help your career. This could be taking additional courses or studying a relevant subject. You can even add relevant interests and activities from your time off.
Here are some more useful cover letter tips for maternity leave.
Laid off/Company closed
Illness or medical condition
We wrote a good post here on how to deal with employment gaps on your resume due to a disability.
Many ask how to deal with gaps on their resume regarding depression. The answer is that you don’t need to bring attention to it directly. Just mention that you were dealing with an illness. Depression is nothing to be ashamed of, but some things are better left off your resume.
You should be cognizant of the need to deal with work gaps, but not to the point where it paralyzes you and prevents you from focusing on the skills and positive attributes you bring to the table.
It’s valuable to remember that today’s employers are far more accustomed to work gaps than in times past. While companies of the past once hired and retained employees for life, that is a far less common occurrence today. Most workers today have career paths that include a variety of different jobs.
Still, there is a need to explain frequent gaps, and gaps that last for more than a few months. What you shouldn’t do, however, is obsess over them in your resume and cover letter. Explain them in a confident manner, and then get on with the more important task of selling your skill set to that employer!
(Also, don’t forget our post on how to answer an interview question about employment gaps).