Many of us have had periods in our work history when we were not employed. That might be due to going back to school, raising children, illness or job loss. While it might not seem like an issue from the job-seeker's perspective, it can send up red flags to employers. Gaps in your employment history without explanation make potential employers question those periods before having the chance to meet you.
Here's how to handle an employment lapse:
Avoid Gaps Altogether. If you aren't in a paid position, you can certainly find creative ways to fill that time and make it more appealing to future employers. For example, an internship or volunteer work can both help boost your resume; learning new skills can as well.
"Show how you put your time to good use," says Patrick Sweeney, president of the management consulting firm Caliper. "Examples could be learning more about your industry, networking with others, taking a course, a volunteer role, working closely with your friends or family on a project together or any number of things—no one is absolutely static when they are unemployed. Show that you filled that time with purpose."
If adding skills acquired during an employment gap doesn't fit into your resume, give a brief explanation of the period and what you did in your cover letter. Only discuss recent employment gaps (those in the last three to five years); nothing older. You can always go into detail in your interview if you're asked about it.
And once you explain the gap in your cover letter, let it be. Many job-seekers obsess about how the gap might appear to hiring managers, but you shouldn't bring it up unless they do. "Think of it like this, if you received a bad haircut, you may be self-conscious of it," Sweeney says. "But you don't want to walk into the interview and start talking about it...Communicate with enthusiasm and show that you've done your homework. That you know about their company and their business."
Keep Up to Speed. If you've been out of the market for awhile, a potential employer might be concerned that you lack technical skills and an understanding of current industry trends. You can remedy this with a little do-it-yourself work: Read industry blogs and publications so you can intelligently have a conversation about what's going on in your profession. Take continuing education classes or seminars that bring you up to speed on things like social media and new industry applications so you can compete with the current workforce.
By showing that you are proactive in learning skills, you demonstrate to potential employers that you're dedicated to your professional development. That can put you in a more favorable light than a job candidate who has done only the bare minimum, even if he has a more consistent job history.
Don't let an employment gap become an excuse for why you didn't get the job you really wanted. Proactively work to continue your career development while you're unemployed, so you stay sharp for potential employers. "A gap is like a missing chapter in a book," Sweeney says. "Left unaddressed it becomes a concern. Your resume is your brand, your advertisement to be hired. And it is an opportunity to differentiate yourself from other similarly experienced candidates."
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs.com, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.