How to Handle a Gap in Your Job History

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by Cynthia Wright

When you think of The Gap, we all think of the clothing store with the super skinny models and cute ads, right?

Well, in the wonderful world of resume writing and job searches, a gap in employment is a totally different ball game. In fact, it’s one of the things that causes the most stress and fear in the hearts and minds of the job-seeker.

Let me tell you why.

Looking for a job in itself is a full-time job. You are at a point in your life when you are at your most vulnerable. Anything out of the ordinary on your resume will intensify that stress and fear. When you are stressed out, chances are you may not be thinking as clearly or logically as you ordinarily would when life is great and things are rolling along.

But as they say, stuff happens. Life happens. So do layoffs, new babies, sick relatives, and a host of other occurrences that can result in a significant gap in your resume.

No matter how diligent, hardworking, and responsible you are, it is possible that you may find yourself out of work for a significant period of time at some point in your career. The key point to remember is not to let this gap in employment hurt you during your job search.

Just because you are not working does not mean that you can’t keep busy. Keeping busy does not mean spending your days watching daytime TV.

Keeping busy means staying involved in your profession. In fact, it’s a lot easier to re-enter the workforce if you keep your skills sharp and your job knowledge up-to-date.

Here are some suggestions to help you stay connected to your career while conducting your job search:

  • Find a consulting assignment or project. Many times, employees who are “in-between” jobs supplement their knowledge (and income) by taking contract or consulting assignments. Sometimes these assignments can result in full-time, permanent positions.
  • Take a class in a subject related to your profession.
  • Volunteer with an organization or become a mentor.
  • Read trade journals and attend seminars in your field of expertise.
  • Write an article for a publication in your area of expertise. Some freelance writing assignments pay well.

Also be sure to maintain your network of industry contacts. An example of this networking approach involves a friend of mine who was laid off from Lucent Technologies. When I met him for lunch, he didn’t seem very upset, and I was curious as to why. He told me he had “his list.” When I inquired as to what exactly “his list” was, he told me that he kept track of all of his colleagues who got laid off from Lucent and where they went! Brilliant. Guess what? One of the people on his list went to a start-up telecommunications company. As a result of keeping track of his colleague, my friend had a great shot at an excellent opportunity in his field. So, it makes a lot of sense to keep a current list of contacts.

A gap on a resume glares out at a recruiter or hiring manager. If you’ve spent your employment gap doing freelance work, consulting, or mentoring, be sure to list that experience in the Professional Experience section of your resume. Include the name of the organization, job functions, dates, and city and state. In other words, treat this work as you would a regular job!

Let’s look at the worst-case scenario. Your resume has a large gap. You may want to experiment with a functional (or, preferably, chrono-functional) resume as opposed to a chronological resume. But be forewarned! A functional resume is a potential red flag to employers because it suggests that the job-seeker may have something to hide, so use caution before using a functional resume. Recruiters and hiring managers vastly prefer chronological resumes because they are easier to read and list skills and job functions as they apply to each position. A functional resume does not. Try a functional format only if your gap is large and a chronological resume isn’t working for you.

If you have an extensive gap in employment, you may want to address it in your cover letter to the prospective employer. Include a brief one- or two-sentence explanation, but do not go into detail about a long illness or a frustrating job search. Rather, state that you were out of the workforce for whatever reason, and explain that you are eager to return. If the gap in your employment happened a long time ago, don’t bother mentioning it at all. Employers are not interested in what happened in 1994!

Should the subject of your employment gap come up during an interview, explain why simply and briefly. In other words, use the exact same brief, simple explanation you used in your cover letter. Obviously, they were impressed enough with your background (despite any gaps) to invite you in for an interview!

Final Thoughts on Employment Gaps

Regardless of the reasons for your employment gaps, always maintain a positive, optimistic attitude, and be sure to let the hiring manager know that you are excited and ready to return to work!

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Cynthia Wright is a human-resources professional with 10 years of experience in staffing and recruiting. A published writer who has written articles relating to careers, job search, and networking, she is currently pursuing a master’s Degree in writing at Emerson College. Wright also holds a master’s certificate in human resources from New Hampshire College, which is now Southern NH University). With her Nashua, NH, writing business, The Wright Stuff, Wright specializes in Web content, non-fiction articles on all topics, and scripts for educational videos. She can be reached by email or by phone at 603-321-0948.

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