How to Deal with Resume Gaps, with Chris Villanueva

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 196:

How to Deal With Gaps in Your Resume, with Chris Villanueva

Airdate: June 19, 2019

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps professionals find fulfilling careers.

Every Wednesday on Find Your Dream Job, I interview a career expert. We discuss the tools you need to find the work you want.

This week, I’m talking to Chris Villanueva about how to deal with gaps in your resume.

Everybody eventually has resume gaps, those periods when you were between jobs.

Perhaps you took time off to raise children. Or care for a parent or other relative. Maybe you lost a job or took a sabbatical.

Whatever the reason, you do need to explain those gaps on your resume. And this week’s expert says you can do so effectively and persuasively.

The key, he says, is to keep your explanations short and matter of fact. And don’t let those gaps undermine your confidence. Most people worry more about this issue than they should.

Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as I interview Chris Villanueva about how to deal with resume gaps.

Chris Villanueva is the founder and CEO of Let’s Eat, Grandma. It’s a professional writing service for resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles.

Chris is also a certified professional resume writer. And he’s the host of the Career Warrior podcast.

He joins us today from Austin, Texas.

Chris, why do resume gaps matter so much to employers?

Chris Villanueva:

Hi, Mac, thanks for the lovely intro.

Resume gaps are a concern for a lot of job seekers and that’s because, many times, employers are shuffling through resumes, sometimes they have a hundred plus resumes to look at and a lot of them are looking for reasons to say no or throw the resume in the trash.

In my opinion, the resume gap is somewhat of a liability, or it can be, so, what we really try to do is, I wouldn’t say hide that gap, disguise that gap, even though that’s what we’re kind of trying to do, but market yourself in a way that’s positive and makes sense.

Mac Prichard:

Resume gaps are normal, aren’t they, Chris? I mean, we’re all going to take time out to, perhaps, raise a family, or go to graduate school, or maybe we’ve lost a job through no fault of our own.

Chris Villanueva:

Resume gaps are absolutely normal, and a lot of people will encounter some sort of gap, whether you’ve been a stay at home mom for the last 10 years to raise a family…I’ve even had clients who, she said she spent 18 years raising a family, and that’s such a noble thing and really nothing to be ashamed of…so, that’s a really good call out and I would say there are a bunch of different reasons why someone might have a gap on their resume.

Mac Prichard:

Why, at least for some employers, is there a stigma associated with resume gaps?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a fantastic question. I think the big thing about resume gaps is you don’t know what they are when you’re looking through a resume. If you have a resume gap, it oftentimes leaves employers wondering what happened at that time.

I think the best thing you can do, if your resume gaps are going to be an issue, is call it out in the cover letter, so employers don’t…don’t let their mind start to wonder, thinking that you were in jail, or thinking that you were running around the streets doing crazy things.

I always tell people not to kind of let their imagination run wild but essentially to kind of explain that gap in a really meaningful way.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so the question’s going to come up and information abhors a vacuum, so if you don’t provide an explanation, the reader, and in this case the employer, will provide one and it could be unfavorable to you. Is that right, Chis?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s correct, and I also want to, because I know you’re probably going to have a lot of listeners who are really concerned about certain gaps that they have, but I want to allay a lot of those worries that people are having that a lot of the times, gaps are not that big of a deal.

For instance, if you have a gap in your history that was 10 years ago or more than 10 years ago, I think that’s very manageable. Or if the gap is, I use this as an example but, less than 5 months, I don’t think is that big of a deal. If you do have those gaps, then that’s when I would kind of address the issue in some sort of way and we can talk about this, methods, and things I’ve done as a resume writer, but not everyone should really worry about these gaps.

In fact, I think most of the people who are coming in are probably a little over-worried but let’s not worry, we’ll discuss how to fix that.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well let’s go into that and it is encouraging to hear that really, the challenge, I think the point you’re making is that gaps are normal, they happen, particularly as your career progresses, and what the employer cares about is an explanation and if you don’t provide an explanation, then there might be an issue but the key is to provide a reason why the gap exists. Is that right, Chris?

Chris Villanueva:

Yes, I would say in most cases, that is the best thing you can do.

Mac Prichard:

Okay.

Chris Villanueva:

We’ll kind of cover how you can explain that, and I think the cover letter is your go-to spot for that because it makes the most sense, but there are some instances, I think, where a lot of job seekers are over-emphasizing gaps on accident and that’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent here.

We can talk about resume tips, hacks, and things like that to go and fix that.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, let’s jump into that because there are a number of circumstances that we’ve already touched on. Say, taking time out to care for a family, or maybe a sabbatical, or even a gap year mid-career, or unemployment, and why don’t we start with unemployment.

Obviously that’s a situation that nobody wants to experience. What should listeners say on a resume and a cover letter as well, Chris, if they’ve lost a job?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a fantastic question.

I think one of the best things you can do when you’re not employed is show that you’re active doing something. Employers don’t want to, at least to let their imaginations run wild and think that you were doing absolutely nothing, or sitting on the couch, or eating your favorite potato chips or whatever it may be. I think in a lot of cases it’s best to show that you were active and bonus points if you can actually show that you were active doing things within your industry or within your field.

I had a client, once who, he actually got out of his position as a product manager. So he got laid off, and one thing he did was start his own consulting firm, which, good for him. It’s not that easy to start your own consulting firm successfully but he was able to help a good amount of clients with helping them one on one with projects. Was he paid for it? Not that much but that’s not something that you have to tell people. It’s not like you have to have this great, beautiful six-figure job and show that kind of thing but the fact that he was active actually going out, providing value for other people in the world and helping them specifically with projects within his field, I think that made him look incredible in his resume.

That’s not only something that we called out in the cover letter, but that’s also something we called out specifically in the resume in a short section. Remaining active is one of the best things you can do.

Mac Prichard:

Setting up a consulting practice is one option. What about volunteer work, Chris? What’s been your experience with your clients who perhaps don’t want to start a consulting practice or maybe aren’t in a field that allows that?

Is there value in taking on a volunteer assignment and can you talk about that on a cover letter or resume?

Chris Villanueva:

I’m very pro volunteer work and showing that on the resume, especially when you have nothing else. I think that’s completely okay. It becomes a little tricky, Mac, on how to actually convey that in a resume, so you go into questions like, “Where do I put this in the resume?” Or “How do I order it?”

I think that’s where the art of resume writing comes in but I do think that it is really good to show volunteer work if that’s the one thing you have going for you, and I think that’s a very credible experience to have on your resume.

That mom I was telling you about who had an 18-year resume gap, it was actually an accounting position. She spent a lot of her time not only raising kids but volunteering for, I think it was a rodeo program, or something really impressive and she ended up moving out in a leadership role as well. So that was one of the things I actually called out in the cover letter and made her look really good.

Volunteer experience? Absolutely, yes. I’d say go for it.

Mac Prichard:

I can imagine listeners thinking right now, “Okay, Chris, how did she describe that? And in a way that was of interest to employers in a cover letter where she might have had just 3 or 4 sentences to talk about that volunteer position and the benefits of it professionally.”

Can you recall what she said?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a good question. I have to go back in my memory palace. I wrote this letter like a year ago.

Mac Prichard:

I know, I don’t mean to put you on the spot but perhaps if you can’t recall that one, just practical tips that listeners might follow in talking about volunteer experience in a way that’s going to be appealing to employers?

Chris Villanueva:

Well, I believe that what I did in the letter was, I opened up the letter, of course, with a statement of intent, letting her know why she felt like she was a good fit for the position and then I backed up that statement of intent with 3 bullet points, (I’m actually a big fan of including bullet points in the cover letter because I try to keep it short and impactful), and one of those bullet points, I included her volunteer experience. And Mac you asked about, essentially, how to make that relevant for the position she was applying for, and the biggest recommendation I can make for that is to be as transferable as possible.

Showcase whatever transferable skills you developed within your volunteer experience. Showcase that transferable skill and how that might be relevant for the position that you’re applying for. In this case, the transferable skill was dealing with other people and leadership, so we were able to kind of tell a story through that cover letter and get specific with her rodeo experience.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, other tips for parents who are returning to the workplace after a period away because this is one I hear a lot from readers at Mac’s List. It’s the question that comes up a lot. Any general principles you recommend parents follow when talking either about benefits of experiences they might have had doing volunteer work while raising a family, or tips about how to talk about that experience in a way that’s going to be attractive to employers?

Chris Villanueva:

I’m going to try not to sound woo-woo here but…I mean it, your attitude is incredibly important, about your gap, like, 100%. So you’re not apologetic but this was an instance in your life that was incredibly impactful, significant, meaningful, and you’re not apologetic but you’re short, sweet, and to the point in your cover letter specifically.

I think a lot of us get very, I wouldn’t say down on ourselves, but we’re seeing this resume gap or we’re seeing us being a full-time mom for 5 to 10 years as this big distractor or liability, and it definitely can be if you bring this attitude of being apologetic or really sorry for that gap. I think it’s really important to, first of all, realize that what you did was a very noble pursuit. It was this really important, possibly the most important part of your life, and to realize how important that was.

I highly recommend…I don’t think the cover letter is that difficult of a task, to not be apologetic. Just keep it short. But I think where a lot of people get tripped up is the interview and they go on and they ramble and ramble about why this was. I recommend practicing your interview answer and keeping that short, sweet, and to the point as well.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific. Well, I want to take a break, Chris, and when we come back we’ll continue to talk about how people can deal with gaps on their resume.

Please stay with us.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Chris Villanueva.

He’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Eat, Grandma. It’s a professional writing service for resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles.

Chris joins us today from Austin, Texas.

Well, Chris, before the break we were talking about how to talk about, or deal with, resume gaps.  Both for parents…and I want to run through some other examples, I know that are likely on the mind of our listeners.

Any special tips about gap years or sabbaticals? Ways that people should describe those circumstances?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a good question. It’s a good call out, Mac, because you’re calling out different situations that somebody might have a gap in the resume, and I think the same principle applies no matter what. What you’re trying to do is to make it relevant and not be apologetic about it.

With gaps years and sabbaticals, I think that each individual person has their own reason for taking a gap year. Whether it’s to become a more well-rounded person, or to explore, or to learn a different language. What I might do is pull in some of those other reasons why you are taking the gap year sabbatical and pull it into your cover letter or resume, especially if it’s very recent.

I had a client once who, she ended up traveling the world, I’d say after she graduated college before her first position. So, within that, we brought how she became a more well-rounded person and was able to see a bunch of different perspectives. This was particularly useful because a lot of the clients that the company she was applying for were from different countries. So that’s one way to make it relevant and I’m just kind of spitballing here and being creative based off of her specific situation.

You really need to look at what the company needs are specifically and how you’re able to tie that in. And that’s really the best way you can tie in a sabbatical or a traveling the world situation.

Mac Prichard:

Now, sometimes a job isn’t a good fit and I’m curious about your experience with your clients who might’ve taken a position and after a month or two, it just wasn’t working and the client and the employer parted ways. Should people mention a job like that on a resume? Or discuss it in the cover letter?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a tough one, Mac. I had a client who took a sales job for a month and a half and the big question he had from me, as soon as he started working with me, is, “Should I leave this on here?” We looked closely at the situation and eventually, we decided to go without it, and that’s because, in his case, he was in the previous position just a month prior, so his “gap” was 2 months, which I don’t think was that big of a deal.

What to do if that’s not the case and if it’s a position? I still might lean more towards leaving it off because a lot of times recruiters, or hiring decision makers, might just start to ask, like I said, their imaginations might run wild. They might say things like, “Was this a disaster employee?” And stuff like that, but once again, I might lean more towards removing that position off the resume but if you end up deciding that you do want to keep it on, once again, I would explain why the position didn’t work out specifically, because a lot of what you’re going to say is probably a lot better than the imagination of the recruiter.

Mac Prichard:

What should a listener say if a recruiter looks at a resume and says, “Oh, I see you left this company in April and it’s now September? Gosh, what have you been doing for the last 5 months?” And you had actually had a job where you were at, say, for 6 – 12 weeks and it didn’t work out and you left.

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a good question. Again, if you’re going to go for the whole, remove the company from your resume because it was an irrelevant part, I would commit to that and I’m going back to the first question that you asked about, what were you doing actively that is relevant for this position. The only catch here is that you wouldn’t be able to say, “I was in that position for a month,” so I might lean towards something else.

Another thing, if you’re going to go that route, and this is just knowing from experience, make sure your LinkedIn is consistent with your resume, like 100%, because a lot of times you, say in the case that you decide to remove that one month position, and with your LinkedIn you decided to leave it in there. That’s where you’re going to run into a lot of trouble because a lot of times, recruiters are bouncing from your resume to your LinkedIn profile and when they see that inconsistency or that incongruence, they’re going to have a lot of trouble.

Mac Prichard:

Speaking of LinkedIn, I had a message from a LinkedIn connection today who was laid off 2 months ago and her question was this: she said she’d been advised to leave the employer on her LinkedIn account until she found her next position but she was beginning to feel awkward because it had been 2 and she was starting her 3rd month.

What do you advise listeners to do, Chris, if they’ve been laid off from a company? Should they update their LinkedIn account and their resume to reflect that they no longer work there?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a fantastic question. I get that a lot as a resume service. I lean more toward the side of taking it off and that’s specifically because people can verify these things very easily and the company can see and especially with something as LinkedIn, it’s so public.

I just think that a lot of information gets around and the world’s a lot smaller than you would think it is, so in that case, I might recommend, 2 months is a long time, so I might say removing that position. The resume, it’s a little bit different because, you know, you can include it and no one’s going to see it but, once again, going back to the fact that it’s a small world and people can find out. I’ve even been called as the owner of a small boutique resume service, I’ve been called from my writers, or companies that my writers are applying for, to verify that they worked at Let’s Eat, Grandma. Me.

Don’t think that it’s not happening and I would definitely say that honesty is your best policy.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, let’s talk a little bit about both layoffs and dismissals. What’s your advice, Chris, when somebody has been laid off or even fired from a job? Should they mention those circumstances at all in a resume?

Chris Villanueva:

That’s a great question. I think that works in a case by case basis. I don’t always recommend calling out a layoff if you don’t need to, just because it’s, in a lot of cases, it’s something that you don’t necessarily need to write about or draw out. I had one specific client who, on each one of her sections of her resume, would talk about why she was laid off or why one thing happened and I think the bad part about that is it painted this picture, this story, that she wasn’t a client worth hiring so when we removed all of those call-outs, it looked like a perfectly fine resume, to be honest.

If you don’t have to do it, then I really don’t recommend it.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, you mentioned years of employment earlier. I want to ask you a little more about that. What do you recommend to your clients about the use of dates? Particularly those who might be further along in their career, 10, 15, even 20 years into time in the workplace. Should they use months and years or are years alone enough, and obviously, if you do that there might be gaps 15 or 20 years in the past that aren’t going to surface? What’s your recommendation there to your clients.

Chris Villanueva:

Once again, I wouldn’t worry about those gaps that are so far in the past and that’s just because I don’t think recruiters are looking that far back. Especially if you have a two-page resume, because if you have a two-page resume their going to spend about 90% of their time on that first page anyway so I think that’s fine.

In terms of dates on month versus to leave the month out, I’m finding it’s completely okay to leave the month out. And I’ll leave months out if I am trying to cover up a gap or something like that, but I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal when you do remove those months. I don’t.

Mac Prichard:

Okay.

Chris Villanueva:

Does that answer your question, Mac?

Mac Prichard:

It does, and I know, in preparing for this interview, I looked at a lot of your blog articles about resume writing and you’re a big believer, Chris, in encouraging your clients to think of resumes as a marketing piece. Can you tell us more about that? And how that fits in today’s topic?

Chris Villanueva:

Yes, that’s a fantastic question.

Your resume, 100%, this is my full belief, is a marketing piece. Unless it’s a federal resume and you’re applying for a government job and they try to tell you to keep every single thing in there.

But when it comes down to it, in corporate America, typically, your resume is a document where you want to highlight your strengths as much as possible and you want to downplay those weaknesses. The main reason behind that, Mac, is, most of these employers and hiring decision makers are spending seconds, and I mean seconds, on your resume.

A lot of the times, your resume is not even getting looked at because applicant tracking systems are filtering out your resume and bringing only the relevant search results to the top. Anyone who doesn’t believe that your resume is a marketing piece needs to look at the statistics and see how hard it is to get your resume noticed. It is very hard.

When I say emphasize your strengths, you need to look really closely at those things that would make you hireable by the specific company you’re applying for and tying in the topic of resume gaps. Like I said at the beginning of this podcast, the resume gap can be a weakness just depending on the way it’s framed.

What we’re not trying to do, Mac is be dishonest and in fact, I think that might be a misconception of having a specific episode like this. But when it comes down to it, you’ve just got to make sure you look as hireable as possible, and as the employer finds out more about you during the interview stages, let them know more. Let them know specifically why you had that gap or things like that, but in terms of getting noticed, it’s all about that marketing.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, terrific.

Well, Chris, tell us, what’s next for you?

Chris Villanueva:

Yeah, great question. I am working hard here in Austin, Texas and I am running this resume company. So we just hired a brand new, amazing resume writer, so we are just looking to change lives here by essentially writing really good pieces here.

We actually just partnered with a developer, or data scientist here in Austin to write better resumes using applicant tracking system. That’s kind of the next exciting thing for me and that’s what I’m doing today.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific.

Well, I know our listeners can learn more about you and your company and your podcast and other services by visiting letseatgrandma.com.

Well, Chris, given all the useful tips you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want listeners to remember when thinking about how to deal with resume gaps?

Chris Villanueva:

I would encourage people to, just because I know the types of people who would click on an episode that asks about resume gaps, because a lot of you guys are very concerned, just relax. It’s completely okay to have a resume gap. 100%. Everyone has reasons. In fact, most people will have a resume gap sometime in their career.

Relax. If you’re having a lot of trouble with that one thing that’s holding you back in your resume, just think about how you’re going to reframe it on your resume, and if that doesn’t work, fine. Switch up your strategy a little bit. But eventually, you will find success if you just keep persisting.

Mac Prichard:

Terrific advice, Chris.

Thanks for joining us today.

Chris Villanueva:

Absolutely, Mac. Thanks for having me on.

Mac Prichard:

Resume gaps happen. We’re all going to have them during the course of a long career. Often, when we think about resume gaps, we think about a job loss but as you heard from Chris, people take sabbaticals, they raise families, they take other time away from work. Whatever the reason, the most important thing to keep in mind is employers are looking for that explanation and when you offer that explanation in your cover letter and your resume, you take the issue off the table.

When you’re getting ready to update your resume, you’ve got a gap, think about why that happened, and how you can share that story, and most importantly, the benefits that you might have gotten from that experience, particularly if you worked as a volunteer, and make sure the employer knows that.

Well, as you think about your resume, I hope you’ll also check out our new guide, Don’t Make These 8 Killer Resume Mistakes.

It’s based on hundreds of conversations I’ve had with employers over the years about the errors they see applicants make in their resumes and I share the most common errors that sink most resumes.

Don’t make them yourself. Get your free copy today, go to macslist.org/resumemistakes.

Well, thanks for listening to this week’s episode of Find Your Dream Job.

Join us next Wednesday. Our guest will be Erin Thomas and she’ll explain how to find your career purpose.

Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

No matter who you are or what you do, eventually, you will have gaps on your resume. It’s simply unavoidable. Whether you take time off to raise a family, get laid off, or you leave a job after a short period of time, you will have to deal with gaps. Find Your Dream Job guest Chris Villanueva says that how you deal with these gaps on your resume can mean the difference between getting a callback or your resume being thrown in the trash. Chris also shares how to positively reframe resume gaps and set yourself up for job search success. 

About Our Guest:

Chris Villanueva is the founder and CEO of Let’s Eat, Grandma. It’s a professional writing service for resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles. Chris is also a certified professional resume writer. And he’s the host of the Career Warrior podcast.

Resources in This Episode:

  • If you want your resume to stand out from the rest, you can find out more about Chris’s resume services by visiting his website: letseatgrandma.com