How to Overcome a Gap in Employment

WorkCoachCafeOvercoming a gap in employment is essential today, when many people are out of work for months to years. In research at MIT and the Institute for Career Transitions, we have learned that a gap in employment of six months or more makes a job search more challenging.

The reason for the difficulty is that employers are, in general, suspicious of someone who hasn’t been employed for a while. Apparently, the nearly-automatic assumption employers make  is that the person is unemployed because they aren’t a good employee.

Fortunately, being hired with a large employment gap is not “mission impossible.” Specific strategies to address the gap in employment can be very effective and are very helpful.

Here’s how:

Option 1: Explain Why You Have a Gap

You may have been out of work for an extended period, up to several years, for personal reasons, including raising children, caring for elderly parents, recovering from serious illness, or other similar cause.

The best approach in these situations is to be open about what has happened. Recent research by Vanderbilt University Law School professor Joni Hersch has shown that when people explain they were taking care of their family or other similar situation, most employers are more inclined to hire them than when the gap is not explained.

You can be open on LinkedIn about these gaps. The Professional Headline is accurate, reflecting your  profession, but the “current” job on LinkedIn is “Raising my children” or “On temporary sabbatical, raising my children” with a start date (or year) indicated. Don’t add an end date until you have a new job.

Don’t supply many details. Simply state the situation, and then move on to focus on your professional qualifications, particularly in a job interview.

Option 2: Fill that Gap!

If you have been unemployed for more than six months — but not caring for family — the key is to find a good way to fill that employment gap on the resume.

The best solution is to find an activity that provides both financial support and relevant experience and activity, if possible. Avoid staying at home all day, sitting in front of your computer submitting job applications. (Completing online job applications is not the way that most people find new jobs, and doing it endlessly without success, as most people do, can be very discouraging and lonely.)

Making the Gap Fillers Public

The goal with all of this activity, in addition to generating income, is to fill a gap on the resume and your LinkedIn Profile. In addition, when the profile is found by a recruiter searching for qualified candidates, the gap between “permanent” jobs will be less visible.

Particularly in a job interview, when asked simply state that the old job ended without trashing the former employer or anyone working there. State the fact, sharing a true reason framed positively. For example, say that your former employer downsized (if true), your boss left and the job changed, you want more responsibility, or something positive and true (and brief) related to moving forward with your career.

Then, move the conversation on to another topic — ask a question, share one of your qualifications for the job, or say something else relevant to the new job and employer.

For more options, read Job Interview Question: Why Did You Leave Your Last Job.

3 Good Options for Filling the Employment Gap

Stay involved in work related activities. Being busy has many benefits like helping you stay up-to-date, or even sharpening your skills to be more competitive. Plus, it is often great for networking and demonstrating your market value.

1.  Contract assignments.

Hiring contract workers is a popular way for many companies to get important work done without adding permanent staff, similar to the temporary agency approach. Usually contracts are longer term, ranging from a few weeks to several months.

Sometimes, the contract is a test to see if adding an employee is appropriate, so contract employment can lead to a permanent job.

These opportunities can be found through an agency. Or you connect with these opportunities through sites like Flexjobs.com or the usual job boards and the Craigslist “gigs” listings. The most effective sources depend on your field, target market, and location.

This is a combination foot-in-the-door plus a paycheck as an added benefit. This may also demonstrate that the job seeker was able to set up and market their services as a business, something that can be very impressive and appropriate for some corporate cultures, enhancing the job seeker’s market value.

This can develop into a career as a freelancer/entrepreneur. Don’t call your consulting work Mary Smith Consulting (if that is your name). Call it something else, like Marketing Advisors Consulting, or whatever is appropriate. That kind of name looks more genuine.

2.  Temporary employment.

Many employers hire temporary help to fill a necessary function while someone is on vacation or out of the office for a few days to a couple of weeks. Sometimes, the temporary work becomes permanent (often called temp-to-perm).

Temporary work is usually sourced through an agency, preferably one with clients who are related to the job seeker’s field and/or target employers. Many job seekers work with more than one agency. As with contract work, temporary work is a foot-in-the-door move plus a paycheck while filling in a gap.  Excellent combination!

The beauty of this is that you can build a reputation with the temporary agency, have an opportunity to try-before-you-buy with new employers (and vice versa), and expand your networks.

On your resume or LinkedIn Profile, designate the agency as your employer. They are the ones who pay you.

3.  Volunteer at a nonprofit.  

Nonprofit organizations almost always need help. So do political campaigns and organizations that support important local issues (from food banks to cancer research). Sometimes even local governments can accept free assistance. Or, perhaps the school that the your child attends needs some parental assistance. Sometimes the work is paid. Often it is unpaid.

The work should be relevant and related to your field or adds skills that are missing from your resume. If your goal is a position in marketing in “the real world,” volunteer to help a nonprofit with their marketing, perhaps in an area where the job seeker’s experience is limited or in need of more experience. For example, perhaps you could help the nonprofit with social media marketing or fund raising.

During election season (which seems to be permanent these days), volunteering with a candidate or for a cause close to the job seeker’s heart can be beneficial in many ways, from the satisfaction (if the election is won) to the network. The downside could be that the candidate or cause might be viewed negatively by potential employers.

Bottom Line

The gap issue can be overcome with planning and preparation. Fill that gap on your LinkedIn Profile and resumes, and be ready to address it in interviews and networking opportunities. Stay positive and prepared.

More Explaining Employment Gaps

Job Interview Question: Why Did You Leave Your Last Job

Answering Why You Left Your Last Job When You Were Laid Off

Answering Why You Left Your Last Job When You Quit

The Interviewer Asked Me Why I Left and I Said too Much

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About the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 2011, Susan has been editor and publisher of WorkCoachCafe.  A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan also edits and publishes Job-Hunt.org and is a columnist on HuffingtonPost and LinkedIn.  Follow Susan on Twitter (@jobhuntorg) and on Google+.

Comments

  1. Tressie says:

    Interesting post! I think if there is genuine problem that should be mentioned on the resume. It will help you to explain less.

  2. Susan,

    Like your article on layoffs (which is what took me to your site), this is a helpful read. One of the real takeaways for me from your 2012 layoff article revolved around understanding the process in which layoffs are made and to move beyond the anger.

    I have a HUGE career gap right now. I was laid off at the very end of 2008. Yes, you read that right 2008. Here it is, 2016. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with me in terms of performance, personal history (criminal/ethical lapses for instance), or interpersonal skills (reputation in marketplace). I will say I am understandably completely VOID of any confidence at this point.

    In the beginning I did the resume stuff, info interviewing, and ‘real’ job interviewing. To no avail. Largely that was a function of WHEN I was laid off. The bottom of the economic cycle was early spring 2009, or approximately 5 months after my layoff. Then there was the slow economic recovery. I don’t know if you recall Job Hunting articles of the time, but they all basically said….”tip #1: impress your boss to prevent losing a job”….problematic if you don’t a boss!

    So, that key 6 month “it’s OK to be laid off” to one year, year and 1/2, etc etc….”wow, there MUST be something wrong with you.”.

    I am at a loss on what to do at this point. I HAVE worked with a career advisor who redid my resume (and I think did a WONDERFUL job really). I have NOT been networking as I once did out of sheer embarrassment. I mean really, wouldn’t YOU wonder what is wrong with someone out of ‘real’ work this long.

    I have been deeply down about my circumstances – I don’t deny that – and struggled with motivation as a result. But all the while appeared ‘normal’ to those around me.

    Most importantly, I have followed the golden rule of always being upbeat on info sessions, with former colleagues, etc…because no one likes a downer/complainer, and have raved about former employer colleagues (who really for the most part were very decent/likable).

    I’m at a loss as to what to do at this point. My career trajectory has gone down such a spiral, it seems unrecoverable. STATS: 50 years old, MBA, former Big Four Consultant in Operations/Financial Advisory, male, and no ‘cover’ in the form of timeout to raise family etc…single.

    What a mess! Thanks for these articles. They really are very very good, possibly because of your own experience in layoffs.

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Donovan!

      Thank you for the kind words about the WCC articles! My hope is to help people be successful in their job search.

      Wow! You’ve had a tough slog, and I’m sure that the timing was a very big part of the reason. Yes, confidence takes a big hit when you are unemployed for a long period (“What’s the matter with me!!!”).

      Being unemployed also takes a big toll on feelings of competence because finding a job is supposed to be easy (it’s NOT easy for most people today). If you can find a local job club (check Meetup.com, your local public library, local church, etc.), attend some meetings, and you’ll discover you’re not the only smart, capable person who is unemployed. Those groups can become very good networks for the long-term, too.

      The good news (?) is that you aren’t alone in being unemployed for an extended period — more than 2 million Americans are currently unemployed for more than 6 months (the minimum). The bad news is that being unemployed does make job search more challenging. But it can be overcome!

      The other good news is that you are still young, so you have time to recover.

      You didn’t mention a LinkedIn Profile. Employers Google job applicants and also search to find qualified candidates, and Google trusts LinkedIn. So do employers. That makes it very important. If you aren’t there, they worry that you’re out-of-date and don’t understand how important the Internet is for business today.

      You’ve managed to continue paying your bills for the last 6 years, so you’ve been doing something. Freelancing? Other short-term or part-time jobs? Can those be pulled together for a cover as a “consulting business” especially considering your background in high level consulting. Just don’t call it “Donovan’s Consulting Business” — employers are much more impressed if the business has a real name, like “Main Street Solutions” or something that isn’t related to your name.

      Have you considered starting a consulting (or other) business, building on your experience? Feel free to use “Main Street Solutions” as the name 🙂 I just made it up, but I like it! With your own business, networking becomes marketing (probably easier to do), and maybe a client becomes an employer at some point. Or, maybe, you like running your own business.

      My personal reaction to being laid off was not to trust “corporate management” again. That’s why I’ve been running my own business since then. Yes, I probably work longer than I did as an employee (although I blame the Internet for part of that), but I am enjoying the work much more than I did before. I do miss co-workers, but I have colleagues now and colleagues are great.

      Stay in touch, and don’t give up!
      Susan

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