For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that the ideal career path involves going to college, getting a degree, landing an entry-level job and then climbing the ladder for 30-40 years — without pause — until you breathlessly stumble across the finish line of retirement. As with so many things in life, however, this notion has not only failed to keep up with the changing times but also fails to meet the needs of the millions of Americans who don’t follow the traditional path of unbroken lifetime employment.
If you’re one of these folks and possess an employment history that contains “gaps” either due to voluntary or involuntary reasons, how should you portray this fact on your résumé and the rest of your job search materials? Or should you even mention it at all? As a career coach, I get asked this question frequently, so let’s review 5 ways to approach gaps on your resume.
1. To Include or Not to Include Gaps? Even the Experts Disagree
If you seek expert advice on handling career breaks, you will stumble across two camps of thought. The first camp will urge you to hide the gaps in your work history and avoid sharing details about what you might have been doing in breaks between paid assignments.
They believe calling out any periods of unemployment will draw attention to the issue and raise questions about your future employment stability. So, on both your résumé and LinkedIn profile, people in this first camp would advise you to list the jobs you’ve held — and relevant dates — leaving it to the employer to notice if any of the dates aren’t contiguous.
As for the second camp? They assume recruiters will notice any irregularities in one’s career history. Therefore, they encourage job seekers “get out in front of the issue” and call out any significant gaps (of at least 6-12 months) — and provide a brief explanation of the reason(s) behind each unemployment period. For example, you might say you took several years off to travel, volunteer, care for an ailing family member or engage in educational opportunities.
Almost nobody recommends sharing any reasons for a gap that a new employer might perceive as negative or worrisome. For instance, mentioning you’ve taken time off to deal with a challenging illness or have been hunting for work unsuccessfully. Such declarations are considered too risky, even for a very open-minded employer. In this situation, it’s advisable to label gaps as a “sabbatical” or “career break” without explaining the circumstances.
As for situations where you’ve taken time off to raise a family or serve as a caregiver to a loved one? These are tough calls since some employers might relate to such circumstances. On the other hand, some employers might penalize you for your time out of the market. In these cases, it comes down to a personal judgment call and a decision about which kinds of employers and work cultures you’re trying to attract.
2. Size Matters — Not All “Gaps” are Created Equal
The second aspect of this topic that makes it difficult for experts to agree on a one-size-fits-all answer is not all employment gaps are the same. A career break of less than a year will be of far less concern to employers than an employment gap of several years or more.
Additionally, the farther back the gap took place, the less “risky” it’ll seem to a future employer. An individual seeking to re-enter the job market after a decade of raising kids, in other words, is going to face more scrutiny than a person who took two years off to backpack through Europe from 2005 to 2006 — and has been working steadily ever since. So, when deciding how to handle your career breaks, consider how long they were and when they took place.
3. Don’t be Afraid to “Spin” Things a Little
If you DO decide to mention an employment gap and provide a written explanation, don’t be afraid to get a bit creative and frame things in the best positive light. If you show confidence or a sense of humor about your time between gigs, it might rub off on the employer and dispel some of their fears.
You could add a bullet to your sabbatical section that says you “engaged in continual learning to stay current in cutting-edge project management practices” even if you took a quick online class — or read a book or two on the subject. Or, if you didn’t do anything professionally relevant during a break between jobs, you could say you “Took a planned career sabbatical to raise a young family; now fully recharged and ready to resume career!”
However, don’t attempt to translate family-raising tasks and responsibilities directly into business terminology. For example, stating you worked as a “domestic solutions engineer” or a “household project manager,” hoping a hiring manager will view your time out of the market as equivalent to a paying job. Trust me; they won’t. This over-the-top approach is a bit naïve at best — or contrived and manipulative at worst.
4. Career Reentry Programs Can Help
Thankfully, it seems as if the job market is starting to evolve in terms of appreciating the millions of professionals who possess “eclectic” career histories. Many employers are starting to recognize that taking time off from one’s career is not an unrecoverable misstep or fatal flaw. And that there are millions of talented workers out there, currently engaged in non-professional pursuits, who represent an untapped, high-potential source of candidates for various hard-to-fill job roles.
Along these lines, numerous mid-to-large employers have launched dedicated “career reentry” programs. These employers actively seek to recruit professionals returning to the market after some time off. The programs often involve mentorships, paid training and other elements designed to get returning professionals up to speed quickly. To find some of these organizations, search for “career reentry” or contact a few local companies (again, the bigger, the better) that interest you, inquiring whether they operate such a program.
5. Consider Using LinkedIn’s “Career Break” Section
LinkedIn also has embraced the new reality of career gaps. If you visit your profile page and click to add a new job in the “Experience” section, you’ll see a new menu option called “Add Career Break” that lets you plug the gaps in your formal job history. Then you can choose from a menu of options (e.g., bereavement, caregiving, personal goal pursuit, travel, etc.) and give a reason for the gap in question. LinkedIn’s team has explained this new addition as their attempt to help “normalize the idea of taking a career break, which has long held a stigma among recruiters.”
LinkedIn’s own data suggests that “while 72% of job seekers believe there’s still a stigma associated with having a career gap, 79% of hiring managers today would hire a candidate with a career gap on their resume.” Very promising news for the many professionals who have inevitably needed to take time away from traditional career pursuits — or who don’t embrace the rigid cradle-to-grave employment model of the last millennium.