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How to Handle Employment Gaps on Resumes

A professional career coach, Marcy has helped hundreds refine their resumes, improve their interviewing skills, and advance their careers.

Handling a Gap in Your Job History

As most everyone is aware, millions of people in all careers have had periods of unemployment in recent years.

If you're facing an employment gap, take heart; you are in good company. It's not the end of the world, and it's also not the end of your career. The strategies below will help you get through this time and to the other side.

Here's a step-by-step plan for surviving a gap in employment, using the time effectively, raising your stock with future employers, and (best of all) landing the job you want.

You can revise your resume to make employment gaps less obvious.

You can revise your resume to make employment gaps less obvious.

How to Soften Employment Gaps on Resumes

One of your first questions (aside from financial survival, which we will also discuss) is how to deal with a career gap on your resume.

Ask yourself this question: Are you willing to offer your professional services to someone on a consulting basis? If so, you can legitimately put 'Consultant' on your resume for the dates when you were not working at a traditional job.

All self-employed professionals are available for consulting or contract work when the opportunity comes along. The same goes for tradespeople, such as painters, auto mechanics, hairdressers and other viable careers.

The fact that you don't happen to have a client at a given point in time does not mean you aren't doing consulting. So, edit your resume to reflect that you're a consultant. And put out the word to your professional associates that you're available for contract work.

You will gain several things from doing this:

  • You'll feel strength from taking steps to address a problem
  • You'll be moving forward rather than feeling in limbo
  • Potential clients and employers will find out you're available
  • You may get some assignments from it
  • Your resume will not imply you're sitting home and doing nothing

Now that you have adjusted your resume, do some legwork to find viable clients you can use to enhance the time you'll spend as a consultant (which can be the time you will be between jobs, or it may even be your new career, if you find it works for you).

Contact your trusted network of professional associates and ask about doing some short-term projects for them so you can keep your skills current. If these are your trusted associates, they will already know you're on the market, and they'll understand completely what you are needing.

It may be that none of them have the budget to actually pay for your time. This is okay (I know, it doesn't sound okay at this point). What you need right now is the ability to list these contacts as clients when you move forward.

Be candid with these contacts and offer to do "pro-bono" work in exchange for keeping your resume and skills current. This will give you current references for consulting work, and it could also lead to some contract work.

Most workplaces will understand employment gaps for education or for family reasons. The tips here can help you navigate those questions.

Most workplaces will understand employment gaps for education or for family reasons. The tips here can help you navigate those questions.

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When an Employment Gap Is for School or Pregnancy

These are common events in anyone's life—don't be afraid to list them openly on your resume.

If you were continuing or finishing your education, simply mention this in your list of dates of employment. If possible, enhance it a bit by adding what you did for volunteer work, internships, or other activities that can round out your career image.

For women who have had babies (or men who stayed home during a baby), mention that you were having your family (or caring for a new child) and as suggested above, enhance this with volunteer (pro-bono) or civic work you did at the same time.

In the case of church work (if it is awkward to list it as such, which is often the case), refer to it as 'pro-bono' work with a youth group, or a service organization, etc. If they ask what the organization is, just tell them it's affiliated with your church. It is indeed a viable experience; it can't substitute entirely for actual employment or consulting, but it shows leadership, initiative, and an active role in the community.

If possible, follow the guidelines above regarding consulting work to help you transition back into a traditional work setting. Even if you are a student, or you've been a homemaker for several years, you have a network you can tap into and you can offer your professional services to your contacts to get some current experience and references.

How to Explain an Employment Gap During an Interview

If you've followed the above instructions, you have already taken the first steps in addressing this issue if it comes up in an interview. If you see consulting as a short-term solution, it's time to move forward to land the job you want.

If you're doing pro-bono work (as mentioned above), and if you have made the proper arrangements with your contacts, you can still refer to the arrangement as consulting and the firms you're working with as "clients."

If the interviewer(s) ask about your fees or income, immediately ask them if they are offering you the position. This puts the ball back in their court.

You can also say you have different arrangements with different clients, and you can keep this information confidential. Set a basic fee you would charge for consulting (check for competitive figures in the market) and use that as a value for what you do. Consultants are generally paid much higher than full-time employees, so don't undersell yourself in that area.

More and more professionals are free-agents in the current economy, and many people find firms that need their skills once they adopt the mindset of using a 'gap' in traditional employment to go into consulting.

If the interview team asks what happened at your last full-time position, be honest, but put everything in a positive light. If they had cutbacks, mention this, and then immediately state it was a great opportunity for you to expand your consulting.

Practice interviewing with the idea you might be in a panel interview setting and do some research on the ways the hiring firm might score their interviews.

Use Your Professional Network!

I can't stress enough that the most important element in getting hired is to identify and use your network of associates.

Resumes are no longer the main vehicle for getting hired. More and more, people rely on referrals from those they know, contacts within the profession, and what they find when they search for you online.

Tap into your professional network right away and begin using that tremendous resource to get back into the traditional workforce. If you are not on LinkedIn, create a profile and begin linking to everyone you know, regardless of their profession.

Perhaps your field is civil engineering, and you happen to have a neighbor who is a dentist. While that doesn't sound like a match on the surface, you have no idea who your neighbor might know at church or through other professional groups.

When you find a company you'd like to work for, search for it on LinkedIn and see who might be in your network, or connected to your network. Follow the tips in the article highlighted above to use your network in the most effective ways.

When you have a contact in a firm that's within your network, it automatically helps give you a leg up in the interview process. Among the many things interviewers discuss behind your back are ways you 'fit' with their corporate environment.

Financial survival during unemployment.

Financial survival during unemployment.

It's beyond stressful to be without a job or an income, no matter what the economic times. Many people are reluctant, however, to apply for various benefits that can help during this period in their lives.

If you haven't already looked into these things, consider doing it now, for your peace of mind and the welfare of those in your family:

  • Unemployment Benefits: Unemployment payments used to last for about 26 weeks, but they have been extended to 99 weeks in recent years, due to the Great Recession we have had. These benefits are there for a reason, and if you are between jobs, you should be taking advantage of this program. While it's true the weekly payments are not huge, if they offset your house payment, or prevent you from draining your savings, it's worth looking into. Many executives have drawn unemployment during gaps in their careers; there's no reason you should not do so as well.
  • COBRA: This is a program that allows people to continue on their health plans after they have left their positions. The downside is that you pay for this coverage, and it isn't cheap. However, if you have serious health issues, or if one of your dependents has a chronic condition, it might be a good investment each month. COBRA is generally available for about 18 months of coverage. It can also help you document that you're eligible to be insured when another plan is available to you in the future.
  • FQHC Health Clinics: If you do not have COBRA, or if other insurance options have been exhausted, check for a local Federally Qualified Healthcare Clinic to see if you and your family can get primary care services there. Yes, these clinics serve indigent clients, but they employ very good and dedicated physicians and can be a huge blessing when you need healthcare services. Check your local phone listings for "community clinics," "FQHC clinics" or other health services. If you can locate one local clinic, they can steer you toward whatever services are offered in your area.
  • Free Prescriptions: Does someone in your family require ongoing medication for a chronic condition? Check with the manufacturer of the medication and ask about their Patient Assistance Program. Most (if not all) major drug firms offer free medications to those who cannot afford them. Yes, really. You may have to fill out the paperwork every three months or so, but if it saves you hundreds of dollars in prescription fees, and if it keeps you or your loved one healthy, it's time well spent. Ask your primary care provider for more information, or ask the FQHC clinic in your area how the process works.
  • Ongoing Bills: Are the bills piling up? There are many resources to help you through this time. If you have a mortgage, contact them and ask about payment arrangements or postponing a payment or two until the end of the mortgage. I promise you they have been getting this sort of inquiry and if they have a program for it, someone will know how it works. Contact other places where you owe money and let them know the situation. Offer to make token payments until you get back on your feet. They may work with you—and if not, what have you lost by asking?
  • Utility Bills: Take a good look at how you can cut your electric bill, and implement as many steps as possible. The same goes for your water bill. If your situation calls for it, contact your utility firm to see if they have assistance programs to help with a month's worth of your bill.
  • Food Stamps: Check your "Blue Pages" or call 311 in your area and ask for the nearest location for food stamps. As with unemployment, these benefits are there for a reason. Your taxes paid for this program, and now is the time to look into it. Most food stamp programs use a debit card system currently, which eliminates the self-conscious feeling someone might have at the cash register.
  • Savings and 401k Accounts: The reason we call these "savings" accounts is that the money is there to "save" you when you need it. You may have to tap into these accounts, if you have them, to get through this time. It may not be your first choice, but it can indeed 'save' you and your family from bigger hardships.

How to Keep Your Spirits up When You're Unemployed

If you're going through unemployment, you may hear a lot of advice about exercising and taking care of yourself. There's a good reason for this; your body will start being affected by the stress you're going through, even if you're not aware of those effects.

Find ways to do the following and you'll stay healthier in your body and your head:

  • Exercise Regularly: If you're not into formal exercise programs, or if you're cutting back on expenses and you've discontinued your gym membership, you can still stay fit by walking 1–2 miles a day, swimming in your apartment pool or joining a team sport of your choice. Your brain and spirits will be energized from getting your blood flowing.
  • Eat Right: This is extremely important at this time. Stress of any sort depletes your body's reserves, and not eating regularly or resorting to junk food can add to the problems. Eat balanced meals and make certain to get the right amount of protein, fruits, vegetables, and other good foods each day.
  • Get Involved: Even with job-hunting being a full-time activity, you likely have some spare hours on your hands. Rather than sitting home and getting depressed, find some volunteer activities or other outlets for your interests and time. You'll feel you've contributed to your community, and you'll meet new people.
  • Consider Joining a Church or Synagogue: If you're not already involved in a religious community, and if there's a community consistent with your beliefs, consider attending services near your home. You will find a supportive community of new friends as well as some comfort during those days when the stress gets to you.
  • Practice Yoga or Meditation: Capturing some peaceful moments for yourself can help center your emotions and give you internal balance during this time.
  • Take Heart: As trite as it sounds, this, too, will pass. Keep yourself active and in good spirits (as much as possible), and keep in touch with your network of friends and associates. You will indeed get through this time, and one day, you will be on the other side of the situation and will be acutely aware of the strength and lessons you learned while going through this time.