A hiccup in your employment history doesn't have to signal slackerdom. Take control of how you present the highs — and the lows — of your professional experience.
It’s a fact of life: The Great Recession of 2008 interrupted many career paths and left a lot of folks’ resumes looking a bit like Swiss cheese.
Some laid-off employees used their period of unemployment to go back to school, retool their skill sets, strike out on their own as freelancers, or simply look for whatever work would keep the bills paid.
Now, as the job market is showing signs of life again, it’s time to spruce up our resumes and get creative about how we discuss the dents and dings in our resumes. Here’s a six tips to expertly explain the gaps in your employment history and steer your career back on track.
1. Be honest and direct
Hiring managers and recruiters tend to be skilled people readers, so don’t dance around the subject of gaps in your employment or gloss over the facts on your resume or during an interview. Though periods of unemployment may seem like a deal breaker to you, most HR professionals are well-acquainted with the realities of the job market and are sympathetic.
Remember, you’re not the only job seeker with a nonlinear career trajectory these days. Be direct about the gaps in your work history, but don’t get bogged down in all the granular details. Focus on how you made the most of that time and what you learned from the experience.
2. Spin it
Building on your candor, work to spin a potential negative into a positive. Remember, an interruption in employment doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but explaining the good that came from it is all up to you.
Rather than letting your employment gap imply a black hole in your professional and personal development, discuss courses you took, skills you learned, networking efforts you made, and volunteer activities you were involved in. Though each of these activities may not dovetail neatly with the role you’re applying for, they’ll demonstrate action and resiliency.
If you took time off to pursue freelance work, travel, or explore an entrepreneurial opportunity, explain how that period helped you to clarify your priorities and hone your talent. Showcase the range of experience you gained during that time and stress how it’s made you a more settled and focused professional.
3. Be future-focused
Rather than getting mired in a sticky conversation about the past, concentrate instead on what you can offer your potential employer going forward. Once you’ve been direct and explained the circumstances that led to the gap in your employment, move on. Talk about the projects you’ve worked on and how the experience you bring to the table can benefit the company immediately.
One of the worst things a candidate can do is not prepare for the inevitable interview questions about employment gaps. Expect questions and have clear, concise and honest answers ready. If you’re unprepared or stammer through your responses, it’ll only draw more attention to a period you’d like to move beyond.
5. Redefine “experience”
As we discussed earlier, experience doesn’t always have to be paid experience. Employers are eager to hear about your specific skills and consider how those skills might be tailored slightly to suit their needs.
Don’t discount freelance, pro bono and volunteer work. Whenever possible, quantify what you were able to achieve in each capacity. Did you help build five houses for the needy in a single summer? Did you put your PR and fundraising experience to work for a pet rescue service and increase donations threefold in just six months? Don’t disregard how your nontraditional experience may have made you a more valuable asset to a traditional employer.
6. Tweak the format
Now that you’re ready to reframe the conversation and put a positive spin on your employment gaps, make sure your resume is working for you. If you’d like to shift the focus away from periods of unemployment, avoid using a resume format that’s strictly chronological. Instead, switch to a functional resume that stresses your skill sets first and then places them in the context of your employment history as readers dig deeper.
Though the employment section will still be chronological (it’s hard to avoid entirely), the functional resume leads with the best and just may get you those three or four extra seconds to capture an employer’s attention.
The most empowering move job seekers can make is to own and embrace their histories and the realities of their career path — warts and all. It’s the first step to seeing the positive outcomes, and being able to communicate how unexpected circumstances challenged and enriched their lives, and, ultimately, helped forge a better and more well-rounded professional.
How did you successfully recover from a significant gap in employment history? What strategies would you suggest to today’s job seekers? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.