What is an employment gap? This is a time in your career history when you did not hold a professional position. It could be for a few weeks, a few months, or even years. When these periods happen, they may end up leaving a noticeable gap on your resume.
These gaps can be hard to shake off from your employment history. Since resumes can go back to the last 15 years of employment, these unemployed periods might show up for a long time. It can be quite daunting for anyone that has an employment gap to know how to construct a resume around it. But don’t worry! We are here to simplify this process for you and help you explain the employment gap on your resume with confidence.
In this blog, we’ll cover:
Why employment gaps happen
Why employers care about gaps
How to fill in employment gaps on a resume
How to handle employment gaps of different lengths
Why do employment gaps happen?
There are many reasons an employment gap can appear on a resume. While some may automatically jump to the conclusion that it is bad, I have found that not to be the case when working with my clients. Here are just some of the reasons I’ve seen gaps on a resume.
An injury or illness
Caring for a family member that was ill
Moving to a new state or new country
Focusing on community work and volunteerism
Working on a personal business or project
Taking personal time off
Why do employers care about gaps?
So what does an employer think if they see a gap on a resume? Some hiring managers may jump to negative conclusions, but others do not. Employers might worry that you will be unreliable, or not dedicated to your position. The good news is, we can stop this assumption by being proactive in the way we handle employment gaps.
These days, nearly all hiring is done through online systems. These are called Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATS. When a job opening gets hundreds of applicants, the ATS makes it easier to sort through the candidates. But it can present a challenge to the job seeker. It can be hard to design a resume to hide an employment gap when an ATS will ask more detailed questions.
How to fill in a past employment gap on a resume
In this section we will focus on employment gaps that are in your past and are less than five years long. There are a variety of strategies to use to handle these gaps.
If the gap is only a few weeks long, then you can breathe a sigh of relief! Employers do not care about short gaps. One of the best ways to format dates on your resume is to list the month and year, and not the actual day. This makes 1-3 weeks of unemployment not noticeable.
If the gap is less than a year, there are a few ways to tackle it. Only a few months will not draw a lot of notice or care from an employer. But if your gap is more than three months long, you will want to address it. The best strategy is to address the gap head-on. Don’t pretend it is not there, and don’t try to hide it.
“Job entry” for a gap
A way to include a gap on a resume is to treat it like another job entry. Put it in chronological order, and state what you did. If you were unemployed due to being a caregiver for an ill family member, then that should be what you include. In the space where a job would have gone, instead write “Caregiver for sick relative, 2019-2021”. There is no need to go into detail about this type of employment gap. If the reason is more personal, perhaps for your own illness, put in only as much information as you are comfortable giving. Remember that you cannot be discriminated against because of your health, but we also want to be careful about what we say.
If you were doing something more involved, then you want to create an entire job description for it just like if you were employed. This may include volunteering or pursuing training or education. Here are some brief examples.
Community Organizer, 05/2017 - 02/2018 Facilitated community events and activities in a voluntary role. Coordinated efforts across teams to ensure projects were completed on time. Thrived in a variety of roles and easily adapted to changes. Trained other volunteers and served as a key point of contact for new team members.
Professional Development, 08/2018 - 05/2021 Pursued professional development opportunities to increase knowledge and experience within the field. Led projects involving in-depth research and presentations before an audience. Actively sought more training opportunities through fieldwork and internships.
What if I didn’t do anything?
You may not have taken off work for any particular reason. If that is the case, think very deeply about anything you did while you were off work. Even the smallest efforts can make a big difference on a resume. Did you help out at your child’s school? Did you move to a new home? Did you learn a new skill? Did you pursue a hobby? Any of these can be turned into something tangible on your resume.
It is important to be truthful, however, we often accomplish much more during our “off time” than we think we do. Take the time to write down a list of all you learned, did, and achieved. Even just focusing on a job search can be described as professional networking. If it helps, ask the people you were around if they remember anything you did, or helped out with.
How to handle employment gaps of 5-10 years
While shorter gaps may be less noticeable, longer ones definitely catch attention. You might be tempted to use a functional resume to cover up these gaps. This is the type of resume format that takes away focus from a chronological history and more on achievements and projects. Unless you work in a field where a portfolio is the most important thing on your resume, only use a functional format as a last resort. They do not always read well on an ATS.
A combination resume format may be a good choice. This combines the accomplishment highlights of a functional resume, while still having a chronological list of jobs. This will draw more attention to your career history as a whole, and less to individual dates.
Trying to fill out these gaps as you would a normal job entry is always your best bet. It will make the dates seamless, and allow you to show off other skill sets. For example, perhaps you helped care for others’ children during this time. You can have a job entry for “childcare” and talk about your activities and things you learned.
How to handle employment gaps of 10+ years
These large gaps take up a massive chunk of your work history. Perhaps you’ve worked the last few years, but between 2008 - 2018 you did not. There are two strategies to use here.
The first is to try and fill in as many of the years as you can with activities that you did, such as the ones described above. Start from the most recent years and work backward. Let’s say from 2019 - Present you have been working as an Administrative Assistant. From 2016 - 2018 you went to college. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t get a degree, you can fill in that gap with professional development. In 2015 you did some volunteer work at an animal shelter. But you have nothing to fill in for 2008 - 2014. That is okay, you did good! Keep your resume with a history of 2015 - Present and drop everything earlier than that.
The second strategy comes into play if you have nothing you can put for those ten years or something you do not want to share. If that is the case, begin your work history with 2019. It doesn’t matter if you were in a managerial position prior to 2008, those ten years will hurt you more than the prior employment will help you. It is best to have a clean slate going forward.
How to build a resume after being unemployed
Our previous sections dealt with a past employment gap. But what do you do if you were just unemployed, and now are seeking to get back to work?
If it has only been a couple of weeks or even a month, you don’t need to worry. But longer than that will need to be addressed. Attempt to fill in the gap with what you have been doing using the strategies explained above.
Try adding a section to your resume with career accomplishments. This will help highlight what you’ve done in your past employment, and draw focus to that rather than your recent unemployment. These sections are typically 3-5 bullet points with highlights from your jobs. Some examples might be:
Wrote the most-read article for a website.
Surpassed quota for five quarters in a row.
Critical point of contact between teams for an important project.
Promoted twice within one year.
Using the cover letter and interview to explain gaps
If you feel like your employment gap needs further information, your cover letter or an interview are ways to do so. Ensure you still address the gap on your resume, but these offer more paths to explain yourself.
If you talk about the gap in your cover letter, try to stay concise. Only a few sentences are typically necessary. You may want to talk about what you learned from this time, if applicable. If you get to the interview phase, they likely will ask you about the gap. Rehearse what you will say, and try to cast this unemployed time in the most favorable light possible. Don’t feel like you should be ashamed, instead talk about how much you grew and how excited you are to build off of that for your next role.
Don’t lose hope! An employment gap is not the end of your career and not an issue that will hold you back from your dream job. Remember that you have valuable skills and are a good worker. Keeping this attitude will let you tackle any career challenges with ease and present confidence to your potential employer.
Don’t try to hide your employment gap.
Try to explain your employment gap with activities you did, challenges you overcame, or training you pursued.
As a last resort, use a functional or combination resume format or only include your current job on your resume.
Stay optimistic and frame this unemployed time as a period of personal growth.