Career Q&A: Dealing with employment gaps on your resume

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I’m returning to the workforce after a couple of years of not working. How do I explain this on my resume?

This is a good question and one we often see clients struggling with. Take heart in the fact that you’re not the only one and that employers are often more forgiving of gaps than we give them credit for. Your resume and cover letter should proactively put to rest any suspicions or assumptions of the employer that you can and will be able to do the job for which you are applying.

To a certain extent, the answer depends on why you have an employment gap and what you did during that time. Here are a few tips to consider when you’re presenting yourself on paper:

1. Format your CV to draw attention to your strengths.

  • Start your resume with a “Highlights” or “Career Summary” section with about 5 bullet points drawing attention to the measurable and concrete ways in which you best fill the employer’s needs.
  • Omit months in your employment history. If you were between jobs for less than a year, this will not be obvious. Do be prepared to explain it in an interview.
  • Use a header like “Relevant Experience” under which you list paid and volunteer experience. If you did volunteer work during your time between paid employment, list it here. Check out a previous column on Does it matter if your experience is volunteer or paid? for some tips on how to do this effectively.

2. Address the gap head-on. You can do this in your cover letter with a simple sentence like “After taking a few years off to raise my children, I am looking forward to applying my skills and experience to this opportunity.” You can also have a short entry on your resume such as “2011 – 2012: Sabbatical to care for terminally ill relative” or “2012: Travelled independently through eastern and southern Africa”.

3. Keep your explanation simple and focus on the positives. For example, if you volunteered at your children’s school and raised $75,000 for a new playground structure, list it as an accomplishment in your resume. If you took a course that’s relevant for the position you are applying for, list it.

4. The bottom line is to be honest. Never lie about your length of employment by “stretching” the dates. This can and will be verified. Ensure that you are portraying your experience accurately and not leaving anything open to interpretation. You must be comfortable with how you represent yourself in the first stages of an application and be prepared to explain and expand on it during an interview.

Good luck and enjoy your re-entry to the paid workforce!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

To submit a question for a future column, please email it to careercoach@charityvillage.com. No identifying information will appear in this column.

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