Throughout the course of a career, working professionals may experience brief or extended gaps of unemployment between positions. While hiring managers understand that these 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 viewed as red flags. It may be inferred that applicants do not possess the proper work experience or that they were unable to maintain consistency in their careers.
As a senior career counselor at University of Phoenix, students and alumni often ask me how to deal with employment gaps on their résumés when going through the application process. There are ways to work around unemployment periods that still prove to hiring managers that you were focused on your career growth, even when unemployed. I often share two key components of overcoming employment gaps that may help effectively explain these situations: filling the gap and explaining it during an interview.
If you have unemployment gaps on your résumé 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 when looking for an activity to fill a gap on your résumé 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, you do not want to get involved in something that will take up so much time that will leave you unable to effectively search for a long-term position.
There are a number of activities to consider. The most important of which, 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. There are countless worthwhile organizations that are in need of volunteers for professional functions.
Freelance consulting is another option if you have a skill set that can be applied on a freelance 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.
Consider also reaching out to temporary agencies for work. It is often best if you can secure this type of position with an employer that you would consider as a long-term career option. If you are 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 long-term employment a possibility.
If you happen to be out of a job for just a few months, you might eliminate months from the résumé altogether and instead include just your years of employment in various positions. Obviously, this will work more effectively if you were employed for a full year or more. This strategy will detract attention from any time gap because it will not be as evident on your résumé. However, if you are required to fill out an online application with a chronological history of your previous employers, you would want to include the months on the application, as in many cases those are mandatory fields.
While filling unemployment gaps displays your dedication to sharpening your skills and gaining necessary experience, hiring managers will still often ask you to explain why gaps occurred in the first place. During the interview process, job seekers must come prepared to explain the employment history on their résumés. If you left the workforce to raise children, care for a family member, engage in self-care activities or pursue additional education, you should not be afraid to share this. However, it is essential to inform the employer that the situation was resolved and to emphasize (with enthusiasm) that you are ready to get back to work.
Explaining unemployment gaps can be more difficult when it was the result of a layoff or termination. If you were laid off or fired, honesty is essential, despite the temptation to stretch the truth. If a layoff occurred because a company closed or a position was eliminated, most interviewing managers will understand that reality. However, if you were terminated, honesty is still the best policy, but you want to avoid speaking poorly of your previous organization or volunteering too much information. You can keep it simple by stating, “It was not a good fit” and sharing 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.
After you have dealt with the reasons for leaving your last job, bring the conversation around to what you have been doing in the interim. Whether it is continuing your education, volunteer work, unpaid work, freelance work, or internships, each opportunity can be spun into a great story about the forward progression of your career. Furthermore, these types of career experiences can be included in the “Professional Experience” section of your résumé. Remember that these experiences “count”, even if they were unpaid.
Above all else, remember that unemployment gaps can be essential to a happy, healthy career and can, at times, lead to better opportunities. Often times, 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 unemployment 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.
Steven Starks is a Senior Career Counselor at University of Phoenix. He has been with the University for 11 years, also serving as a career coach for five years and a senior academic counselor. Starks is a National Certified Counselor and a featured career coach with TheMuse.com. Previously, he worked in the mental health industry providing individual and group therapy for clients struggling with severe mental illness, abuse, and trauma. Starks holds a Master’s in Psychology from University of Phoenix and a Master’s in Mental Health Counseling from Walden University.