How to Turn Employment Gaps into Positives

For most of us, life has a tendency to get in the way of our career paths. Employment history gaps are becoming more common, but they’re still often seen as red flags to employers. When it’s time to return to work, you need to reframe those gaps and show yourself in a positive light.

Before you jump into a job search, take some time to reflect on the skills you used and the lessons you gained from your time “off,” and use those to your advantage. Let’s take a look at some common reasons for employment gaps, consider some ways to reframe your time away, and set up a plan to launch back into the working world.

The DIY Sabbatical: Adventure and self-awareness

It’s only natural to grow disenchanted with a career path, particularly when you’re young and hungry for meaningful experience. Whether you’re burnt out or drawn to world travel, more people than ever are taking extended leave by choice, embracing the power of time off.

If you do take the time, be aware of the skills you used. Did you plan and save for years before taking a six-month hiatus? You know how to protect your limited resources with relentless vigilance. You learned about your capacity for risk. You learned how to adapt. You experienced other cultures. You learned a new language. Whatever it may be, there are marketable skills you gained from the experience.

Don’t underestimate the interest factor, either. Hiring managers are human and they understand the value in someone who has tested their limits and learned from it. In most cases, they’re not looking for another timid office drone, but someone capable of bold thinking and taking the road less traveled when necessary. These are positive attributes in an employee.

Family First: Dedicating time for caring

It’s estimated that 25 million Americans provide at least informal care for a family member or friend in need of support, and that number is only expected to grow. A full 67 percent of subjects interviewed in a recent poll support paid leave time for caring of a sick loved one.

In situations where you were serving loved ones during your time off, it’s best to explain the situation briefly and be clear about how you made the decision you did. Chances are, someone on the hiring committee has faced a similar dilemma, and will have empathy.

Rerouting Ambition: Framing a business failure

Perhaps your employment gap was based on chasing a dream. Maybe you left a job you hated to seek better fortunes, and things didn’t work out right away. Or maybe you started your own business, and it failed.

It’s hard to fault ambition, but it’s your responsibility to explain away a perceived failure. The fact is, most people have experienced unemployment during their career. Most startup businesses don’t make it for a variety of reasons.

Employers don’t want to hear excuses, they want to understand how you work. Explain your reasons for making a leap, and describe what you learned from the failure. Show them you’re tenacious, and they’ll be more likely to see a misstep as a sign of strength.

Resume Tactics: Answer the history gap

A long employment gap on your resume begs for questions, and if you don’t answer them up front employers may assume the worst. Consider taking one of two approaches:

  1. Keep it simple: Write a line or two in your experience section that explains what you were doing during the gap. If your gap was several years ago and/or you’re currently employed, a simple explanation should suffice.
  2. Pivot to positives: If you’re coming out of an employment history gap, consider listing your gap experience just like the rest of your work history. Explain what you did, list highlights and accomplishments, and call out the skills you used during this time.

Stepping away from the 9 to 5 grind is not only normal, it’s often unavoidable. Even during a hiatus, however, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with your professional network and stay abreast of recent developments in the field.

Finally, be prepared to explain how these breaks (and new experiences) have proved valuable to your existing skillset. It’s not always easy to do, but you must justify each step in your journey through life, even if it was a misstep. Your focus should be on conveying your strengths and abilities through the gaps in your work life.