Back to Work: How to Handle a Career Gap

By Kristen Harris

Being a working parent is hard. Right now, it’s REALLY hard. At the time of this writing, much of the country is under some variation of a “stay-at-home” order due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and daycare centers are closed, leaving many parents to juggle work, child care, and homeschool oversight. Even those without children may be helping care for parents or other family members while working and keeping their household running. 

On top of the juggling, there are economic worries as millions of people get laid off or furloughed. This is a lot to handle. Due to competing responsibilities, or to decisions made by employers, many workers may find themselves taking a voluntary or involuntary break from work. People might choose to or be forced to give up their job. 

We often meet with candidates who are concerned about having a “gap” in their employment. Whether they chose to pull back on their career to raise children, were laid off, or even fired, there is an assumption that not having continuous full-time employment is a barrier when searching for a new job. 

I was happy to see a recent survey confirm what we’ve always felt. People have rich and varied lives. Sometimes that includes times where they don’t work full time in a traditional sense, but that doesn’t need to be a barrier to finding work when they’re ready. (Note–this survey is focused on working mothers, but I believe the findings are relevant to many people who may have a gap in employment due to the current economic situation.)

According to the survey, hiring managers are open to hiring a candidate who has had a career break, and many believe that the career gap should be included on their resume. Our advice on this is to use your best judgment–it really depends on WHY you took a break. If it was related to family, health, or personal issue, you are not obligated to provide details or explanations; on your resume, say something like “career break due to personal reasons” or don’t include those dates at all. If you were laid off, exclude those dates from the resume timeline; when it comes up in an interview, as it inevitably will, keep your answer short and factual. No matter what happened, leave the emotion out. Right now, the answer is probably “COVID-19″…enough said.

This survey also highlighted something that I also believe–that you are a whole person who is learning and building skills, whether working full time or not. The skills you develop depends on what you’re doing with your time. Maybe you were raising children and learned A LOT about patience, time management, and dealing with different personalities. Those are valuable soft skills that apply to any workplace. And, just because you did not have a full-time position for a while, the prior knowledge you had does not expire. You don’t unlearn things; you might just need to brush up on a few items to get your skills up-to-date. If you take classes or learn new software, definitely include that on your resume! 

Also, take this opportunity to decide what you want to do next and how the skills you already have may apply. Do you want to find a job similar to what you had before? Or maybe something entirely different? When you’re going “back to work,” there is no rule that it has to be in the same job or industry. 

Maybe you have a graphic design background that’s heavy in print–update your skills with some training in web design, UX/UI, and social media graphics. Were you previously in an account management role but always loved writing? Put together some writing samples to show how you can apply that skill to the industry you already know. Or maybe you were in marketing but always wanted to work at the library–go for it!

A career gap doesn’t need to be a barrier to getting the next job when you’re ready. Consider your skills, position yourself for roles where you’re qualified, and be okay with the fact that sometimes life necessitates stepping out of the workforce for a while. 

Ready to get back to work? Let’s talk about what that next step looks like for you!