If you have a gap in your resume, it's not the end of your career. A "time out" from your work life isn't necessarily a negative thing, and it doesn't eliminate you from future opportunities. Post-Covid, hiring managers understand that people might have gaps in their work history for a myriad of reasons beyond the after-effects of the pandemic shutdown (although that in itself was significant). You might be concerned about having a gap on your resume, but it’s not the “red flag” that it used to be.
Framed properly, a career gap might even be a positive thing. With a little planning and a positive attitude, a career gap can be just another step in your professional ladder.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
What a career gap is
Types of career gaps
Explaining a career gap
Including a career gap on your resume
What to do during a gap
More than 90% of U.S. workers have been unemployed at some point in their careers.
Defining the career gap
A “career gap” is just what it sounds like — a period of time when you weren’t gainfully employed or in school, either by personal choice or because of forces beyond your control. Gaps are becoming increasingly more common, as workers take a more flexible approach to their career path by making more time in their lives for lifestyle choices, travel, and personal growth. And any stigmas previously attached to a career gap (or several) are gradually disappearing as hiring authorities begin to understand the benefits of taking a break, and that it isn’t necessarily random starts and stops in a career path.
Types of career gaps
There are many reasons for taking a break from working, and everyone’s priorities differ.
Layoffs, furloughs, and redundancies
Personal or professional development
Taking care of health concerns
Being a caregiver for a family member
Each of these reasons comes with its own set of challenges, but in general, a career break can help an employee come back refreshed and ready to go, as you’re placing your well-being above getting burned out.
According to a LinkedIn survey of 23,000 American workers and 7,000 hiring managers, 62% of employees have paused their careers, and 35% (mostly women) would like to take a break in their careers in the future.
Explaining a career gap in an interview
Taking time away from your career can provide an opportunity for personal and professional growth. So don’t downplay it — own it. Prepare explanations for gaps on your resume so you’re not caught unprepared when you do decide to return to the workforce.
Have an answer ready
Your résumé and cover letter aren’t the only places you’ll want to explain your career gap. When you get an interview, the hiring manager will undoubtedly have questions, so it's best to have an answer ready. You'll want to give the interviewer the "big picture," rather than focusing on small details. Prepare your answer by thinking about what you've accomplished on your break from work, and how it will help you in future positions.
Make sure that you’re tailoring your answer for each interview, much like your resume and cover letter. If you’ve gone back to school or received additional skills training, explain its relevance and how it will help you in a new position and connect to the company’s mission and goals.
Remember to keep it positive. Explain how this time away has given you new career insight and led to personal development, even if the reason for the gap wasn’t your choice (i.e. layoffs).
Examples of explaining a career gap
Here are some examples of how you could explain your career gap, based on the reason:
1. You were laid off
Example: “My former employer underwent a buyout that resulted in my position being deemed redundant. To be honest, it was a challenging time but I was confident that I had developed strong skills there and built solid relationships with my team and supervisors. I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to apply those experiences in my next position.”
2. You left your job to be a caregiver
Example: “I had the privilege of being the primary caregiver for an elderly family member. I was glad to be there for my family but always knew I wanted to return to work. I feel that this is the right time to do that.”
3. You were a stay-at-home parent
Example: “I loved my last job, but I decided the best thing for my family was to stay home with my children while they were young. I’ve been focused on parenting for the last five years, but now I’m looking forward to returning to the [specific field] industry. I worked at [company name] before my children were born, and I’ve kept up with their accomplishments. I have also done volunteer work at the [name of organization] where I utilized my background in [job experience].
4. You took time off for personal reasons
Example: “I took some time off from work to focus on myself and my personal growth and development. I believe this time has prepared me to handle new opportunities and challenges, such as this position.”
Once you’ve had the opportunity to address the gap and explain how you spent the time, guide the conversation back to your suitability for the position. A good way to do this is to ask the interviewer a question about the company or the job.
Per Todd Miller, author of “ENRICH: Create Wealth in Time Money and Meaning: “I’ve taken two sabbaticals during my career. An employment gap on a CV does not necessarily mean a red flag. On the contrary, if the time was used productively and purposefully, it can be a career asset, especially if the employee returns to the workforce with fresh energy and a widened perspective.”
How to address a career gap: honesty is the best policy
Don’t try to hide your career gap in an interview or on your resume. Acknowledging the gap in your history is not only truthful, but it also gives a more coherent flow to your career timeline, as long as you keep it pertinent to your job goals. If, however, your reason for a career gap doesn't fit in with your professional narrative, you can include it elsewhere, such as in your cover letter, so the hiring manager will be aware of it before your interview. This would be the best option if your career gap was due to more personal reasons, and you can demonstrate character growth that supplements your professional experience.
General tips on answering career gap questions
No matter how it’s presented on your resume, questions about your career gap are bound to arise during an interview. Much like answering other typical interview questions, draw attention to the positive results and benefits of your time away, and connect it to the job you’re interviewing for. You can even answer the question preemptively. For example, if the interviewer asks, "What is your greatest strength?" you can pull examples from your career gap to demonstrate the strengths and abilities you developed during that time. But don't get too detailed in connecting it to the job. Focus more on soft or transferable skills that you developed during your career gap, and on being upfront and forthright.
Incorporating a career gap into your resume
A question regarding your career gap is going to come up at some point, so it’s best to address it on your resume. Where it’s placed on your resume, however, depends on the reason for your hiatus and how it fits logically into your professional narrative.
Here are a few options:
Add additional sections to your resume. If you did volunteer work, consulted, freelanced, or completed independent projects, make sure to include it.
Emphasize new skills or personal development. Highlight what you learned and how it relates to a new position. Also, make note of any recent professional training or certifications.
Consider your resume format. A functional format places more emphasis on your skills and abilities than direct experience, which will allow you to shift focus away from your career gap without leaving it out.
Incorporate it into your cover letter. This allows you to give more context about your career gap and how you spent your time away.
Add it as a “placeholder” on your resume. This shows that you view your gap as a time of learning opportunities and skill maintenance. Unpaid time doesn’t necessarily equal wasted time.
Career Break – 06/2020 - Present
One of multiple people laid off due to corporate restructuring at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.
Consistently received excellent performance reviews from team leaders and stakeholders; parted on good terms
Proactively pursuing certifications within an online format in Digital Marketing and Project Management.
Including an explanation of your career gap also demonstrates to prospective employers that you are professional and honest, which always helps you stand out from the crowd.
What to do during your career gap
You may not be working, but you can still be productive. During your job search, there are quite a few things you can do to stay current and professionally active and make the transition back to full (or part-time) work go more smoothly.
Network, network, network
While you’re still in the midst of your career gap, take the opportunity to maintain professional relationships within your industry or new industry. This can include attending conferences, updating your LinkedIn profile, or reaching out to former co-workers. Focus on quality, not quantity. Don’t wait until you’re desperate; reach out before you need something. Do a little homework before your meeting to establish a more meaningful professional connection.
Dr. Melanie Katzman, author of “Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work” advises job hunters to “Read up on what your colleague has been doing at work or in the community. Arrive with quality questions. If you can Google the answer, you are asking the wrong question. Make the conversation interesting for the person you are meeting.”
It's easy to wait until you're in "crisis mode" to reach out to an industry leader or professional leader. This rarely works out for the best. Consider establishing a monthly schedule of lunches or coffee meetings to develop professional relationships. It may be challenging, but it will be worth it. Here are some suggestions for building your network:
Create a list of five or six people with whom you’d like to establish or strengthen your professional relationship. Not sure who to ask? Consider potential mentors, senior leaders in your industry, subject matter experts, or colleagues in complementary fields.
Pick one day a month to dedicate to networking, and send out email invitations to your contacts to set up a lunch/coffee meeting. Consider meeting outside the office to establish a more relaxed atmosphere.
Do your homework, and make sure you add value to the conversation by asking about your colleague’s accomplishments and interests.
Follow up after a few days and thank them for their time. Ask to set up another meeting in a few months if they’re amenable (and it’s something you’re interested in as well).
Up your social media game
Make sure you have an active profile on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn. This will make sure you’re not missing opportunities to connect with people with whom you could establish mutually beneficial professional relationships now or in the future. Check to make sure you're not making errors like using a non-professional profile picture, or omitting your skills, education, or location. Become a regular user, and aim towards becoming a "thought leader."
Being in a career gap is the perfect opportunity to maintain your existing skills or learn something new. Read books, attend workshops, or take classes to stay current in your industry. And you don't have to spend a fortune to stay sharp. Learning opportunities include YouTube tutorials, online classes, online certifications in things like Adobe Photoshop or QuickBooks, or free training classes in a variety of areas at sites like Coursera. Getting a certification in a specific software or adding credentials to current certifications can show potential employers that your skills line up with the positions they’re looking to fill.
Volunteer your time
Volunteering is a great way to keep your skills honed or even learn new skills. Try to volunteer in an area that is relevant to your career path. For example, if you are in the IT field, you could assist a non-profit to help them figure out how to integrate and clean up its databases. If you're in sales, you could partner with an organization to write sales and marketing materials to generate more interest in that group. Volunteering provides regular networking opportunities and supports your resume by maintaining your skills and staying up to date in your industry.
Consider freelance or contract work
Freelancing, even for a short time, is an opportunity to learn new skills and establish new professional contacts. While at first glance freelancing might look like a career gap, it is an opportunity to talk about how you grew your client base through multiple outlets and networking, and how those jobs helped maintain your skills and knowledge in your chosen industry.
You might have a gap in your career path, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never work in your field again. Far from it. Career gaps happen for all kinds of reasons, such as regrouping after a layoff, getting another degree, spending time caring for your family, or focusing on your mental health or personal growth. Most people have gaps in their employment at some point in their careers, so it's neither unusual nor anything of which to be ashamed. Getting back into the working world can be challenging, but if you use the time away from employment wisely, it can wind up being a positive step in your career path.
A career gap is a period when you weren't gainfully employed or in school, either by personal choice or because of forces beyond your control.
There are many reasons for a career gap, including family or personal leave, layoffs, or raising a family.
Take the time to formulate an answer to explain gaps on your resume so you’re not caught unprepared when you do decide to return to the workforce.
Make sure to incorporate your career gap into your resume.
While you're in your career gap, take time to network, learn new skills, or volunteer.