What To Do About A Gap In Your Job History

Rachel Schneebaum

Sometimes when you’re looking for a new job, you can’t conduct your search from within the safety net of your current job for any number of reasons. This is a scary position for job seekers to find themselves in—not only because you no longer have a safety net of salary and benefits, but also because, the longer you stay unemployed (no matter how hard you work at finding a job!), the bigger the dreaded work history gap becomes. When potential employers see a large gap in the work history section of your resume, this can raise a red flag. Hiring managers and employers might wonder: what were you doing during that time? Why weren’t you working? Are you an unreliable employee? Etc.

There’s no need to panic, though! Lots of people are unemployed for significant lengths of time over the course of their careers, whether that unemployment is caused by sickness or injury, family emergencies, extensive company-wide layoffs, etc. A gap in your work history does not immediately make you unemployable—especially if you make use of the following tips:

1. Make your job search into your job—but don’t make it your full time job!

You should aim to spend several hours a day on your job hunt. You can use these hours to do research: take advantage of career advice websites (such as this one!). Work on perfecting your resume- and cover letter-writing ability; search for jobs you’re interested in, and write detailed and job-specific cover letters for these positions; look for “Now Hiring” signs at businesses around town where you can submit your resume in person, or even start up a conversation with the manager or an employee, if possible; and more. However, make sure you’re not spending all day hunting for jobs: this can lead to exhaustion, carelessness and lack of attention to detail, and, of course, discouragement and depression.

Also, it’s important to note that spending all day every day on the job hunt doesn’t leave you with any time to do other things—the kinds of things that can make your resume stronger or even minimize your job history gap.

2. Stay active! (ideally in a career-related way)

Just because you’re unemployed doesn’t mean you have to stay home all the time, applying for jobs and watching daytime TV. Instead, there are several activities you can engage in to increase your industry knowledge or to add new skills and accomplishments to your resume. I’ll list and describe a few of them below:

Volunteer!

Volunteer work not only looks good on resumes—especially if you end up in an organizational or managerial position, or just take the lead on a particular project—it also provides you with dates and references to fill in that employment gap. It’s best (though not necessary) if you can find an organization that works in an industry relevant to your career, or an organization where the tasks you perform as a volunteer are similar to those required by your desired career.

Find a consulting/contract assignment

Sometimes companies offer short-time contract positions for work on a particular project. If you work a contract position in your industry, you can definitely list it as part of your work history. Even though it’s just a short-term position, it makes you look like you’ve been actively trying to find work. Perhaps more importantly, it makes that dreaded work history gap smaller! Contract work can add to your industry knowledge—and your income!—and can occasionally result in a full time job offer.

Consider freelancing

Like contract work, freelance work can go a small way toward supplementing your income while unemployed: this is important, because it’s difficult to do a good job at anything—including job searching—if your primary focus is your stress about money issues. Additionally, if you are able to publish a few articles related to your career, you can and should definitely note this as one of your accomplishments on your resume! When hiring managers see this kind of outside work listed on your resume, it indicates that you’re motivated and a self-starter, that you’re knowledgeable about the industry, and that you have good writing skills. It also shows that you’ve been staying up-to-date with industry issues even while unemployed.

Keep learning!

If you live near a community college or university, check out classes offered in areas relevant to your career. Email or talk to the professors who teach those classes: most professors—especially those teaching large lecture courses with plenty of room—are happy to let people sit in on their classes. Take notes and do all the reading and assignments (though you can’t hand them in for credit, of course): not only will you build on your industry-related skills and knowledge base, you can also add these skills to your resume and write about how you took the initiative to pursue your education in your cover letter(s).

If you don’t have access to college classes, you can still take advantage of online lectures: there are hundreds of podcast recordings of course lectures available for free download on the internet or through iTunes. There are also numerous (and free!) online tutorials where you can learn and practice new skills such as Photoshop or computer coding.

Go to seminars/conferences or workshops in your field

Again, taking this kind of initiative shows potential employers that you are extremely serious about your job: you’re working to stay up to date on industry issues even while unemployed. These kinds of group organizations are also excellent places to meet people in your field, which means: networking! Start conversations with people; try to stay relaxed and friendly while still demonstrating industry expertise. Who knows: you just might end up with a job offer. (If not, you should still keep in mind that networking is an extremely important skill for job seekers, so the more opportunities you have to practice, the better off you’ll be in the long run.)

3. Keep in touch with industry contacts

Are you unemployed because of sweeping company-wide layoffs? If so, keep in touch with your coworkers who were also laid off around the same time. Ask them where they are now; if they are employed at a new company, don’t be afraid to ask them how they got their job. One of your coworkers might even know about an opening at her new company and recommend you for the position! It’s also a good idea to keep in touch with people you met at conferences or seminars, as well as friends from school who are working in the same industry as you. As long as you’re friendly, polite, and professional (without being pushy), people who know you as a coworker or a colleague should be happy to help you if they can.

It’s worth noting that in some cases, the reason you haven’t been able to work for some time might also prevent you from engaging in any of the suggested activities above. If so, you still have no reason to panic. The most important thing to keep in mind when applying for jobs with a work history gap is that you can’t—absolutely can’t—hide your employment gap. Don’t try to cover it up by submitting a non-chronological resume, and don’t try to brush over it or ignore it in your cover letter. Employers will notice, and your attempt to hide your work history gap will raise even more red flags than having a gap in the first place. Instead, your cover letter should address the gap directly and honestly. You don’t need to (and, in fact, you shouldn’t!) write an entire paragraph about your medical issues and your difficult recovery from surgery. Just say (for example) that you’ve been out of employment for some time due to an injury, but that you’ve recovered now and are eager to return to the workplace.

Employers are human too, and they understand that these things happen. If you are an otherwise stellar candidate, hiring managers won’t simply toss your resume because of a job history gap—as long as you follow the tips above.

About The Author

Rachel Schneebaum

Rachel Schneebaum is a PhD candidate in philosophy, with a graduate minor in cognitive science, at the University of Arizona. She graduated from Williams College in 2009 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in both English and Philosophy. Rachel hopes to more effectively help students decide on, prepare for, and eventually succeed at their dream jobs.

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