Throughout your career, you may experience brief or extended gaps of unemployment between positions. Hiring managers understand that this gap might be due to a variety of reasons–such as illness, family situations, travel, or the inability to find a new job. But there are times when they’ll see them as red flags and a sign that applicants don’t have the proper work experience or ability to be consistent in their careers.
As a senior career counselor at the University of Phoenix, students and alumni often ask me how to deal with employment gaps on their resumes when they’re applying for jobs. There are ways to demonstrate your commitment to your career growth to recruiters, even when you’re unemployed. I often share two critical components of overcoming employment gaps: filling the gap and explaining it during an interview.
Filling the gap in your resume
If you have unemployment gaps on your resume (or are anticipating one), your first step should be to fill them with experience-generating activities that will further your career. Pick something that aligns with the field you’re working in (or want to work in) that can also speak to the future trajectory of your career. However, be mindful of getting involved in something that will take up so much time and leave you unable to search for a long-term position effectively.
There are several activities to consider. The most important of which, I believe, is education. You should never stop learning, and gaps provide an opportunity to return to school or learn something new. Volunteering can also serve as a viable filler–many worthwhile organizations need volunteers for professional functions.
Freelance consulting is another option if you have a skill set that can you can apply on a freelance basis. Even if you only have one client and work part-time, it should be enough to fill a gap. As an added benefit, freelance consulting usually offers the flexibility you need to go on interviews and attend networking meetings.
Consider reaching out to temporary agencies for work. It would be ideal if you can get a position with an employer that you can see yourself working for permanently. If you are successful, it’ll give you the inside track on what departments to pursue, how to apply, and which individuals you need to speak with to make long-term employment a possibility.
If you happen to be out of a job for just a few months, you might eliminate months from the resume altogether and instead include just your years of employment in various positions. This would work more effectively if you were employed for a full year or more. This strategy will detract attention from any time gap because it will not be as evident on your resume. However, if you’re required to fill out an online application with a chronological history of your previous employers, you’d want to include the months on the form, as in many cases those are mandatory fields.
How to explain the gaps to hiring managers
Filling unemployment gaps displays your dedication to sharpening your skills and gaining necessary experience, but hiring managers will still ask you to explain why you have those gaps in the first place. You’ll need to be prepared to take them through your employment history, and how it has evolved. Say you took time off from work to raise children, take care of a family member, or pursue additional education. Be up front about your circumstances, but make sure that you emphasize (with enthusiasm) that you’re now ready to get back to work.
Explaining unemployment gaps can be more difficult when it’s because of a layoff or termination. Ultimately, honesty is still the best policy, as tempting as might be to stretch the truth. If a layoff occurred because the company went bankrupt or eliminated your position, most hiring managers will understand that reality. If you were terminated, you’d want to be strategic with the information that you provide. Avoid speaking poorly of your previous employer at all cost. You can keep it simple by stating, “It was not a good fit” and sharing what you learned and could have done better. This approach allows you to demonstrate your commitment to being the best employee you can be.
Focus on your what you’re doing to move forward
After dealing with the reasons for leaving your last job, bring the conversation around to what you’ve been doing in the interim. Whether it is continuing your education, volunteer work, unpaid work, freelance work, or internships, you can spin each opportunity into a great story about how you’re making an effort to progress in your career. Furthermore, you can put these types of career experiences in the “Professional Experience” section of your resume. Remember that these experiences “count,” even if they were unpaid.
Remember that unemployment gaps can be essential to a happy, healthy career. At times, they can lead to better opportunities. Regardless of why an unemployment gap occurred, the critical part is to be prepared to make the most of it by using the time to improve your life and career.
Steven Starks is a senior career counselor at University of Phoenix. He has been with the University for 11 years, also serving as a career coach for five years and a senior academic counselor.