Gap in Your Employment History? 4 Tips for Easing the Transition Back Into the Workforce

  People take breaks from the workforce for many reasons. Some stay home to raise children until they’re ready for school. Others take time off to care for a sick family member. Still others go back to school full-time or elect to travel for a year or two before returning to their careers. While people have different motivations for leaving the workforce, they often share one universal experience: the challenge of getting back into it. Even in a great market with high demand for talent, candidates who took time out of the workforce may find themselves frustrated by a lack of traction. They apply for a range of opportunities and revise their resumés again and again, yet they’re not landing any interviews. The gap in their employment history is likely the reason why.

Employment Gaps From a Hiring Manager’s Perspective

When hiring managers review candidates’ résumés, they are first looking for direct hits. People who are doing this job (or very close to it) already.  Two of the key elements they look for are consistency and progression. They want to minimize risk with any hire. From the decision maker’s perspective, their time is better spent talking with a candidate who looks solid on paper than hunting for answers about another’s employment gap.

“Reentering the workforce is absolutely achievable, especially if you’re willing to be flexible at the outset.”

With a gap in their employment history, and without an internal champion or recruiter there to step in and advocate for them, the candidate’s chances of being called in for an interview can be slim.

How to Overcome an Employment Gap

Before you give in to doubt or frustration, take heart. Reentering the workforce is absolutely achievable, especially if you’re willing to be flexible at the outset. Here are four ways to make the transition easier:

Address the Gap Up Front

Resist the temptation to ignore or gloss over your employment break. Trying to obscure or downplay it only makes it more of a red flag to potential employers. Being direct is the best way to assure them that you’re reliable and straightforward. The first place where you’ll need to address the break is on your résumé. You don’t need to go into extensive detail; a short explanation will do. If you were caring for a sick family member you might write, “I took a personal sabbatical to care for an ill relative” or, simply “Family sabbatical.”  Hiring managers understand that life throws us tough circumstances, so the gap will make sense if you address it succinctly and honestly. In the end, share only the details you are comfortable sharing. If you took time off to travel or to reflect on what you want to do next in your career, you may want to handle the situation differently. You might simply write “Personal sabbatical” as a placeholder and discuss the circumstances during the interview so you will have more control over your own narrative. Traveling the world or taking a break to decide your next move aren’t bad decisions. But when a hiring manager hears those explanations, they wonder whether you actually know what you want and whether you’ll take off traveling again in another six months. Conveying renewed commitment to your own career path is important. You can mitigate these fears by owning your decisions. Being decisive makes all the difference. If you can clearly explain why you took time away and why you’re re-entering the workforce now, the hiring manager will see that you’re a lower risk choice, which may level the playing field with other candidates without a gap in their work experience. Better still, have a recruiter or internal advocate vouch for you. When I work with a candidate who has an employment gap, the first step is to get a reference from their last employer so we can use that as we present their resume. That reference will often ease any initial hesitation the hiring manager might have.

Connect With Your Network

Speaking of advocates, stay in touch with your references! Ideally, these people will be able to vouch for your performance and the fact that you left the company on good terms.

“Be careful not to compare yourself against your peers who have since progressed to higher levels. Everyone’s career path is their own and taking time off may come with sacrifices to progression.”

Connecting with your contacts is always a good idea. A quick message to say hi or a brief catch-up over coffee — these small actions nurture relationships. Most importantly, see if you can add any value by offering to help them in some way.  Once you’re ready to re-enter the workforce, these people may know of great opportunities and be able to put in a good word for you. So, whether you’re on an employment break or not, make sure to keep up with your contacts.

Be Flexible

From a hiring manager’s perspective, every hire is a risk. Hiring someone with a significant employment break is an even bigger one. Explain your situation honestly, but be understanding if they don’t offer you a job right away. You’ll also improve your chances if you’re flexible about the positions you’ll accept. Just because you were at a certain level three years ago doesn’t mean you’ll re-enter at the next level or even the same level. Be careful not to compare yourself against your peers who have since progressed to higher levels. Everyone’s career path is their own and taking time off may come with sacrifices to progression.

Consider Consulting or Contract-to-Hire Positions

If you’ve been out of the employment pool for a while, you’re likely eager to dive back into a full-time position. But keep an open mind about consulting or contract-to-hire opportunities. When companies hire someone full-time, they’re taking a big risk. Onboarding, training, and supporting a new employee requires significant investments of time and money, so they want to be sure they’re making the right decision. Unsurprisingly, hiring managers scrutinize full-time candidates very closely, and they might be spooked by a large résumé gap. However, a “wait-and-see” attitude is inherent in consulting or contract-to-hire jobs. There’s potential for a full-time offer, but the initial risk is much lower. They’re more inclined to keep an open mind about employment gaps if they’re not making a massive investment right away. A consulting position can benefit you, too. You will have a chance to really see beyond the interview and get a sense of how an organization fits your requirements.  You’ll get to add some recent experience to your résumé and you’ll cultivate relationships within the organization. Starting with a consulting or contract position also allows you to re-acclimate to the workforce. If you’re not used to getting up and heading into the office every morning, that’s going to take some getting used to again. By the time you land a full-time position, you’ll be prepared for the occasional long hours and late nights required of you from time to time. No matter what your reasons are for taking time out of the workforce, you can find your way back in. As long as you’re honest about why you were away and open to considering a wide breadth of opportunities, doors will open and you’ll find fulfilling work in your field.  

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