Mind the Gap: How to Address Employment Gaps in Resumes and Interviews

Many of us have had employment gaps in our work history. It’s not uncommon. Maybe you took a year off after graduating, a long hiatus in between jobs to focus on family or recover from illness, or personal time to travel the world to “find yourself”. We all have our reasons.


The challenge in the world of work is addressing those employment gaps in a way that highlights strengths rather than weaknesses, experiences over opportunities, and success instead of failure. It’s not always an easy task. The good news is that hiring managers and recruiters experience the same types of challenges in life as the candidates they assess. Because they spend so much time assessing candidates, they especially understand the wide-ranging circumstances that can occur since they’ve seen it all. 


In this article, we will look at:


  1. Identifying Employment Gaps
  2. Preparing Your Resume with Employment Gaps
  3. Writing a Compelling Cover Letter Addressing Employment Gaps
  4. Emphasizing Alternative Experiences and Skills
  5. Tackling the Topic in Interviews

Identifying Employment Gaps

On the surface, identifying employment gaps seems pretty straightforward. But it’s important to recognize those gaps in relation to their reasons, duration, and in some cases, the outcome. Doing so will allow you to reflect and decide on whether you can present the gap (or gaps) as an advantage in the eyes of a hiring manager. 


Common Reasons for Employment Gaps

There are several common reasons that might lead to employment gaps in your work history.


Some of these include:

  • Personal health issues
  • Caring for family members with health issues
  • Taking time off for travel or personal interests
  • Pursuing education or training opportunities
  • Involuntary layoffs or company closures
  • Choosing to stay with children as a stay-at-home parent

It’s important to recognize that occasional gaps in your employment history are natural and often unavoidable. They shouldn’t be seen as something to hide. Instead, the focus should be on taking the emphasis off any longer gaps by demonstrating — initially on paper —  the cumulative value of your professional skills and experience for the prospective employer. 


Acceptable vs. Concerning Gaps

When reviewing your resume, hiring managers will consider the context of your employment gaps. Some gaps are inevitably more understandable and acceptable than others.


Examples of acceptable employment gaps would be:

  • Taking time off to care for a sick relative
  • Going back to school or completing a training program
  • Taking parental leave after the birth or adoption of a child


Examples of more concerning (or unacceptable!) gaps could be:

  • Moving to the Bahamas for an “extended vacation” after your previous company suddenly declared bankruptcy 
  • Taking time off to work on your stand-up comedy “career” complete with a YouTube channel with less than a dozen subscribers
  • Travelling the world to “find yourself” by hitting every major rave and music festival across the globe 
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In more conventional terms, hiring managers may be more concerned about gaps in your employment that seem unexplained or reflect a pattern of job hopping. Addressing gaps in your resume proactively can alleviate potential concerns and demonstrate your professionalism. When you explain gaps in employment on your resume or during an interview, focus on what you accomplished during that time, how it helped you grow professionally or personally, and how it can contribute positively in the role you’re applying for. 


Preparing Your Resume

When addressing employment gaps on your resume, it’s essential to focus on highlighting your relevant skills and experience, choosing the right resume format, and knowing how to address short gaps versus long gaps. 


Highlighting Transferable Skills and Experience

A major key to addressing employment gaps is to emphasize your transferable skills and relevant experience as they relate to your time spent working. Focus on the value you bring to the table and how your overall skills can contribute to the company you’re applying to. Along with bullet points to list your skills and previous work achievements, don’t be afraid to bold key phrases that demonstrate your expertise. This will draw the hiring manager’s attention towards your strengths, rather than focusing on any gaps in your employment history.


Using the Functional Resume Format

A functional resume format can be an excellent way to deemphasize gaps in your employment history. This format highlights your skills and accomplishments, instead of organizing your resume by chronological order. By listing your relevant skills at the top, you showcase your expertise before listing your work experience. This allows you to put your best foot forward and minimizes the focus on any gaps you may have in your employment history. But also understand that some hiring managers and recruiters are not a fan of the functional resume.

Click here to view examples of functional resumes.


Addressing Short Gaps vs. Long Gaps

Different strategies apply when addressing short and long gaps in your resume. 


Short gaps: If you have a short gap in your employment history, consider omitting the month when listing your job dates and only provide the years. This can help conceal small gaps and keep the focus on your skills and experience.


Long gaps: For longer employment gaps, consider listing the reason for the gap as its own “job.” For example, if you took time off to care for a sick family member, list this as an informal position and briefly explain your responsibilities. This demonstrates responsibility and self-sacrifice. It shows that you were not idle during this time and can be a valuable asset to a prospective employer. In this case, you don’t need to write a detailed overview with lots of bullets, similar to your employment experience. You can explain it with one simple bullet point.


To illustrate what this might look like on a resume: 

*Employment Gap to Provide Care-Giving: June 2022 – December 2022 

      • Took a 6-month sabbatical to serve as a primary caregiver for an ailing and elderly family member, during which I handled all appointments, organized medication, prepared meal plans and organized activities for physical and mental wellbeing


Keeping it simple can show prospective employers that you’re not treating it like formal work experience, but you do see it as work. The explanation in this example allows you to highlight positive character traits like responsibility and self-sacrifice.


Will there be a-hole employers who frown upon this kind of an employment gap? Sure there will. But most will respect your commitment to family and will see those character traits as a benefit to their company.


Writing a Compelling Cover Letter

When addressing employment gaps during your job search, crafting a persuasive cover letter is crucial. While your resume can outline your gap, your cover letter can explain it. It allows you to explain the reasons for your employment gap and showcase any skills or strengths that came from it. Here are two sub-sections to focus on while writing your cover letter:


Focusing on Your Strengths and Value

Despite having gaps in your employment history, it’s essential to draw attention to your strengths and the value you can bring to the company. To do this, begin by highlighting your most significant achievements, skills and experiences relevant to the job you’re applying for. Use your cover letter as an opportunity to show enthusiasm and confidence in your ability to take on the role. Be sure to tailor your cover letter to the specific job requirements, focusing on how your background aligns with the needs of the company.


Explaining Gaps in a Positive Light

Explaining employment gaps in your cover letter comes second to addressing your professional experience. When addressing employment gaps in your cover letter, be honest about it and do it in a positive manner. Avoid making excuses or dwelling on any negatives. Instead, briefly provide an explanation for the gap, such as personal reasons, health issues, or further education. Then, emphasize what you gained during this period, including any new skills, volunteering experience, or personal development that may relate to the job.


For instance:

  • If you took time off to care for a family member, mention your ability to manage multiple responsibilities and develop strong organizational skills.
  • If you pursued further education or skills training, outline how these new qualifications will benefit the company.
  • If you volunteered or worked part-time, stress the valuable experiences that enhanced your abilities and made you a better candidate.


By focusing on your strengths and value while explaining gaps in a positive light, you can create a compelling case for your employment, especially when your job search itself is following your period of unemployment.


Emphasizing Alternative Experience and Skills

Alternative experiences and skills that can come from employment gaps that may not be directly related to the position can provide a strong supporting boost if they are explained properly and align indirectly. For instance, fulfilling difficult responsibilities or making a commitment to continuous learning or taking action on self-development can be indirectly aligned as desirable attributes to almost any job out there because they demonstrate such positive character traits.     


Educational and Training Accomplishments

Whether you took a break to pursue higher education or completed an industry-specific course while unemployed, don’t hesitate to emphasize these accomplishments. Mention the relevant certifications, degrees, or courses taken during the employment gap. Demonstrating your commitment to continued learning can help compensate for a lack of work experience or longer employment gaps. 


Freelance and Volunteer Work

If you did freelance or volunteer work during your employment gap, be sure to include it in your resume. This shows that you were proactive and remained productive, even when not formally employed. Highlight the specific knowledge and abilities you developed during freelance and volunteer experiences, as well as any impactful projects you contributed to. 


Personal Projects and Hobbies

Personal projects and hobbies can also provide valuable insights into your abilities and skills. If you worked on any projects or engaged in hobbies that are relevant to the job you’re applying for, include them in your application. For instance, if you’re changing careers and have pursued a personal project in a new industry, this can showcase your enthusiasm for the field and the practical skills you’ve acquired. Conversely, if you’ve reconnected with your childhood hobby of building train sets, leave it out unless you’re applying for a job in the railway industry. In other words, think about the personal project or hobby before adding to your resume or cover letter. 


Problem-Solving and Adaptability Skills

Employers appreciate candidates with strong problem-solving and adaptability skills. Like continuous learning and self-development, they are skills that align directly or indirectly with almost any job. Emphasize instances where you’ve overcome obstacles, adapted to new circumstances, or devised creative solutions to challenges. Be prepared to share examples from your past experiences, including school, travel, or previous jobs, that demonstrate your resilience and flexibility. This can help reassure potential employers that you have the abilities needed to thrive in different situations and handle the various demands of the job.


Tackling the Topic in Interviews

Addressing employment gaps in job interviews is not only important, but should be welcomed. For starters, you’ve been called for an interview so the employment gap clearly wasn’t a deterrent for the employer (on the basis it was included in your resume) and did not take you off any shortlists. Above resumes and cover letters, the interview is the best place to talk about any employment gaps because you can go beyond the limitations of what you’re able to fit on paper. You can dive a little deeper and really convey the benefits of your hiatus. That being said, there are a few things to remember.


Being Honest and Confident

It’s important to convey honesty and confidence. Explain the reasons behind your employment gaps to the hiring manager. They’re likely to appreciate your transparency. People often have gaps in their work history, so don’t feel nervous or anxious about talking about it. Instead, focus on discussing the positive aspects of your experiences during these periods.

Photo from Canva

Reassuring Employers with a Proactive Approach

It’s crucial to reassure potential employers that you’ve used your time wisely, despite your employment gaps. Highlight any skills or knowledge you’ve gained during your time away from work. For example, did you take any courses, volunteer, or work on personal projects? Emphasize that you’re eager to apply these newfound skills to add value to their organization.


Keep it Brief!

While it’s important to address employment gaps in your work history, it’s also important to not dwell on them. Remember, initial interviews can sometimes last as little as 15 – 30 minutes. Be conscious of not spending a significant amount of that time talking about your “non-work” experience. 


Final Thoughts..

What they might be looking for, is how you understand your employment gaps, especially when they may not be for more conventional reasons like family or illness. Regardless of the reasons, it’s crucial to be honest, concise and adopt a proactive approach. Leaving longer gaps off your resume or cover letter can leave you off of any short lists. And if by chance you get an interview, it can open you up to questions you’re not prepared for. So make sure you give this area of your life some thought and attention. Unlike your work experience that needs to be tailored to the job you’re applying for, this part of your resume can remain consistent.


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