If you’ve been out of work for a while, you may face a well-documented bias against the unemployed in your job search. But fear not; there are ways to easily fill the gap, preempting any potential uneasiness about your unemployment while reassuring employers that you’re current in your field. Here are three of those ways, followed by what to say when asked about an employment gap in an interview.
1. Get involved with an association or other volunteer organization related to your field. Don’t just join the association, however. Run or help run a committee or get on the board. Then put this unpaid work at the top of the Experience section of your résumé. That is, don’t just relegate your relevant but unpaid work to the Volunteer section of your resume. You’ll diminish the value of the work you’re doing, and increase the risk that this experience may not be seen since it’s at the bottom of your résumé.
By taking an organizational or leadership role in an association or via other volunteer opportunities, you’ll fill the gap in your resume and reap other important benefits. You’ll get access to opportunities via the connections you make in your leadership role. This access comes from your colleagues in the association experiencing you as a capable contributor who’s nice to work with (i.e. they won’t just view you as a resume). You’ll also get exposure to new ideas and skills that will help you to appear cutting-edge to prospective employers. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of associations that clients have found valuable in their job searches.
One of my clients who had been out of work for almost two years wanted to transition into a finance role in the energy sector. He joined the right energy sector association, meaning one with people in the membership who could hire or refer him for opportunities. But he did more than join; he helped them with budget analysis, and wrote some blog posts for them. This experience went right at the top of his résumé as his most recent “job,” with the title “Budget Analyst and Special Assistant to the Board.” Incidentally, his leadership role at the association was what ultimately landed him a job offer at an energy firm that he happily accepted.
2. Work for free for friends or colleagues, and add this work as consulting experience to the top of your resume. One of my clients was out of work as a financial planner but was helping friends and colleagues with financial planning. She was adding real value for them that others would pay for, so she felt justified in calling herself a financial planning consultant on her résumé, and sharing her stellar results. When she received an occasional inquiry from a prospective employer about her compensation, she would truthfully say it involved goodwill and barter in lieu of monetary payment.
3. Take some classes to remain current in your field and then put “Continuing Education” at the top of your work experience. For example, my client was targeting Marketing Director roles in the Tech sector, but she had been out of the job market for several years while raising her children. In the meantime, marketing became more “digital” and “integrated.” She took a few online courses and put those at the top of the Experience section of her resume. We turned these courses into a “job” with job title “Continuing Education – Digital, Integrated and Social Media Marketing.” In the job description we listed the courses. We put these courses in the education section as well.
Here’s what to say in an interview about your gaps in work experience caused by one of the following scenarios.
You’ve been looking for many months or longer, to no avail: Keep things as positive as possible. Don’t say anything like “We’ll I’ve been looking for a year, applied to hundreds of jobs, but it’s really tough out there!” That may be the truth of your experience, but the prospective employer will question whether your frustration has implications for success in the role you’re seeking. So take out the negativity. Instead, focus on the gap-filling measures you’ve taken like the ones just described. Some clients have done well simply saying something like “After working for 15 years straight I decided to take a break, but now I’m ready to jump back in, and I’m excited to be talking to you…” That is, answer briefly, positively and change the subject back to them.
By the way, if you do have a gap in your resume and are just “applying” you may be in for a long search. The fact is, if you have been out of the workforce for a while you are no longer the perfect candidate as far as search firms and “applicant tracking systems” (the computers who screen job posting applications) are concerned. But there’s absolutely no reason to despair. You’ll just have to double down on the way most jobseekers get interviews anyway, via the hidden job market. That is, you’ll need to focus more on networking (join an association!) and cold-emailing/calling and less on applying.
You’ve taken a multi-year break to raise a family, or took a sabbatical: Share either of these circumstances proudly! But still adopt the “résumé-gap-filling” strategies I described at the start of this post.
A health issue took you out of the workforce: You don’t want to draw attention to your health issue. While you might gain sincere sympathy, you’ll also raise a red flag, as they’ll think “what if she gets sick again while working for me?” Instead, just say something like “I took a break after working for 20 years straight to manage a personal family issue. It’s completely resolved now and I’m ready to jump back in 1,000%. And I’m really excited to be talking to you because…” Again, answer briefly and then change the subject back to how you can help them and why you want to work there.