How to Overcome an Employment Gap

Mid adult businessman interviews potential employee
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An employment gap is a period of months or years when the job applicant was not employed at a job. Employees choose to spend time unemployed for purposes such as attending school full time and having and raising children. Employment gaps also occur for involuntary reasons such as layoffs and downsizing, serving time in prison, or employment termination for cause.

An employment gap or gap in employment history is important because it raises red flags in the eyes of a potential employer when the unemployed individual tries to return to work.

Employers are justifiably nervous about hiring a job candidate without a consecutive employment history. Because an employment gap is either for positive or negative reasons, it will need an explanation for the potential employer.

As an employer, any gap in employment that shows up on a resume or job application requires an explanation. Smart candidates explain the employment gap up front in their resume cover letter. Candidates who are trying to cover up the employment gap or fool the potential employer, use tricks to make their application materials appear free of employment gaps.

Applicants use years of employment, rather than years and months, as an example, to cover up short employment gaps. They also use functional resumes, that emphasize skills and accomplishments, rather than chronology to cover up employment gaps. Depending on the reason for the employment gap, candidates make up stories – some true, some not - to explain their gap in employment.

Savvy people use the time spent unemployed preparing to return to the job market.

How to Overcome Your Employment Gap

Concerned about getting back in the workforce after a gap in your employment? You should be when you consider the bad experiences some employers have had when they take a chance on people with a gap in their employment history.

Additionally, the job market appears to have qualified candidates for most positions. How will your resume, with a one, five, or ten-year employment gap, stack up against those of people who have been racking up career achievements and accomplishments for the same ten years?

Stay-at-home moms and dads who raise their children, rather than their expertise and visibility in a workplace, are the largest group to sport these resume gaps. Even a couple of years out of the workforce can devastate your career if you’re not careful.

In worst case scenarios, you can become unemployable in your field. Even in best case scenarios, you will undoubtedly take a salary cut and find yourself reporting to someone who would formerly have reported to you.

It is not to say that returning to work is hopeless. There are plenty of people who have walked back into an executive job, developed their dream job or created a career change following chosen unemployment. It’s just that it’s harder for you with an employment gap.

These tips will help you stay ready for employment while you raise the kids or take a few years for a non-work activity. It’s much better to spend that time preparing to be employable than to hit the job market cold after years at home. You'll be better prepared if you heed these tips.

Work With Your Current Employer 

Your current employer, assuming you are still working, may value you and your experience. Talk with your employer to identify potential part-time or consulting work or periodic assignments you can do during the years you plan to work less than full time. If you work in marketing, for example, perhaps you can do freelance work on social media marketing, brochures, the website or press releases.

If you work in Human Resources, you may contract to update the employee handbook annually or teach a class periodically. It is the easiest way to stay grounded in the workplace during an extended leave. Make your best pitch before you leave your job. Don't hesitate to call, however, even if you have been off work for a period of time.

Build and Keep Your Network Before You Need It

You'll find that it is easier to maintain current professional contacts than to build a new group a few years down the road. Professional contacts become dispersed to new positions; mentors retire; valued coworkers move on to new jobs.

It is up to you to maintain relationships, sometimes for years, with people who will remember your talents when you decide to return to full-time employment. It is also imperative that you relate to friends and associates in your off-work life as an educated professional who has chosen to take time away from her career to raise a family. Talk about more than the children; make sure your friends know what you do professionally as well.

Stay Active in Professional Associations

Most career fields have professional associations that sponsor meetings, conferences, committees, training sessions and more for members. Stay active in your local association by attending meetings, writing for the newsletter, acting as a goodwill ambassador and attending national conferences. Volunteer for the activities that most closely match your career field and interests. Choose activities in which you’ll interact with many members to expand your network at the same time.

Volunteer in Community, School, and Civic Organizations

Challenging volunteer work can help to fill the gaps in your resume whether you return to your original career or create a career change in the future. Do invest thinking time in determining what kinds of volunteer work will be the most strategic for your long-term goals?

Serving as president of the school board is likely worth more when you return to work than sewing costumes for the school play. Do both if you have the time and energy – they fulfill different aspects of your spirit. Do think about how the volunteer work will appear on the resume and stress contributing to volunteerism related to your future employment.

Keep Your Resume File Updated

Keep track of new skills and activities you have developed and experienced during your time away from the workforce. Keep the resume file filled with notes about your volunteer work and other contributions. When you want to return to work, you’ll be happy you kept good records of the time you were unemployed.

Create a Small Business and Work Even a Few Hours a Week

Think creatively. A mom just left the workforce to spend time with her eleven-year-old daughter. She is launching an Internet home baked doggie treat business. Active for years in Greyhound associations, she has identified her initial customer base and plans to expand from there.

Write for newspapers, magazines and businesses; develop marketing materials for organizations; sell your professional expertise as a consultant; make candles or other crafts; design and maintain gardens; operate a daycare center or a home-based school; design and build websites; paint, wallpaper and decorate homes and businesses; cater special events; and provide virtual office assistant services over the web.

Keep Your Skills Current

Can you imagine a computer programmer finding a new position after five years outside of the workforce? Not unless she can demonstrate current skills.

Fields such as banking, employment law, securities, and financial planning change quickly. Attend school, take graduate seminars, participate in online learning, and read to stay current in your field. Your local college may have classes you can audit if you can't pay tuition.

No, a quick refresher class won’t help you out in most fields when you decide to return to work or change careers. Keeping abreast of your field every year is the best way to stay employable at something you’d like to do.

Use the Time at Home to Change Careers 

Maybe it’s time to try something new. A time away from work is perfect for pursuing career options and learning more about yourself and your interests. You may want to create the life you want with a mid-career crisis.

If you decide to change careers, you can invest the time to earn a needed degree. Or, you can spend your volunteer or home-based business time on the skills needed for the new career.

Consider Part-time Work

Work part-time in your field, your career change field or just to keep your work record fresh. The money may also come in handy for the family or to fund your future goals.

Consider Job Sharing

Many people have chosen to leave the workforce for periods of time. Employers may have to consider creative ways to keep valued people working or to fill hard-to-fill positions. ​Job sharing, either half days, or splitting the week can work for both the employees and the employer if lines of communication remain open.

And, the shared work may work best for all concerned when two talented people invest their energy in the same job.

With a consistent investment in yourself and retaining your job and career relevance, you can overcome an employment gap. Choose to be prepared for the day when the hiring manager asks, "What have you been doing for the past ten years." You can respond, "A lot. I'd like to tell you about that time."

As an employer, look for candidates with integrity. They explain their employment gap in their cover letter. They are truthful when they account for the time spent unemployed during the job interview.

With application materials fraud escalating, you need to know who you are hiring.

Also Known As: ​gap in employment, resume gap