You’ve been out of work for a long time. Months, years, or even decades. Maybe the recession hit your industry particularly hard. Perhaps you took time off to raise children or care for a sick family member. Or, maybe you became discouraged at some point and threw in the towel. Whatever your situation, you can break back into the job market. It just takes planning and flexibility. This article offers strategies for making a long gap in employment look better on your resume and cover letter.
1. Focus on what you have been doing.
Unless you’ve been in a coma, you’ve been doing something all these years. If the way you’ve been spending your time might be relevant to employers, you can include it on you resume.
Have you updated old professional certifications or earned new ones? How about taking classes at a community college? If you’ve been raising children, have you been helping on the school board or participating as a PTA officer? How about leading a Boy or Girl Scout troop? Have you done any volunteering in your community, even if it was short-term? If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you have something to fill up the white space on your resume.
Job seekers with more than two certifications can move these to a separate section. Those with two or fewer can place them in an “Education and Certification” section, which should also include any college experience or degrees you’re earned. If you took college classes, but didn’t earn a degree, you can still mention this in the “Education and Certification” section, as long as you write that you “pursued” a degree or “worked toward” a degree. Don’t imply you graduated if you didn’t. If a high school diploma is the highest level of education you’ve attained and you have no training relevant to the job you’re applying to, you can list that instead, but you probably want to move it to the bottom, since it isn’t recent.
Volunteer experiences certainly count, since many of them teach things that are transferable to paid positions, such as teamwork, adaptability, and communication skills. Most types of volunteer experiences can follow the format your resume uses for work experience. On a traditional resume, volunteer experience is often found in a “volunteer experience” section. On a functional resume, which we’ll discuss next, volunteer roles can be blended in with other skills and knowledge.
While you may have just been known as a “volunteer,” listing “volunteer” as your title doesn’t tell the hiring manager much about what you actually did. So, if you’re using a traditional resume format, come up with an accurate title to describe your role. For example, if you were a PTA officer at your child’s school, you can write “Volunteer Parent-Teacher Association Officer.” Just make sure the title you give is informative.
2. Consider using a functional resume or combination format.
The traditional resume format, known as the chronological resume, tends to work best for traditional applicants. When you picture a typical resume, with a list of company names, cities, dates of employment, titles, and job duties or accomplishments, you’re thinking of a chronological resume. It’s meant to showcase your work history. But, if you have a long gap in employment, you may want to draw attention away from your work history.
A functional resume format can make this easier. This type of resume includes your education, certificates or licenses, career skills or knowledge, and career achievements, but not a list of companies you worked for or dates of employment. When you use a functional resume, you can draw attention away from an unusual career path, highlight what you already know, and cover up employment gaps in an honest way.
However, the functional resume also has disadvantages. Hiring managers may feel confused or suspicious when they see this format, since it doesn’t give them the information they’re looking for right away. The majority of Internet job websites don’t accept this format, and they aren’t popular with recruiters. Traditional industries, such as banking, accounting, and law, are often more interested in traditional resumes.
So, if you decide to use a functional resume, you may want to write a chronological resume as a back-up, or combine the best of both types. We can help you learn how to write a resume in a functional, traditional, or combination style.
3. Use your cover letter to briefly explain the gaps in employment.
It’s possible you’ve been busy these past years, but haven’t done much that translates into the workplace. This can include being a full-time homemaker, caring for aging parents, or working on personal projects unrelated to the business world. If this is the case, a few sentences or a short paragraph on your cover letter can help the hiring manager decipher the gap. If you haven’t been sending a cover letter with each resume, now is the time to start.
Don’t go into too much detail and don’t offer excuses. The hiring manager isn’t interested in your personal life. In fact, they could be sued if they asked you personal questions. Just give them enough information to explain the absence, try to put an appealing spin on your experience away from the job market, then move on. Your cover letter is an advertisement for you as an employee, so keep it to-the-point, upbeat, and professional.
What the above strategies have in common is that they present your time away from the workforce in a positive light. None of them involve lying to or misleading your employers. Instead, they showcase your ability to adapt to new situations and market yourself effectively. Those are two skills that will interest employers.