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How to Handle Layoffs and Other Gaps on Your Résumé

5 tips on how to describe time away from work in your employment history

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If you've accumulated a gap or two on your résumé over the years, you're not alone. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic left tens of millions out of work, 3 in 5 Americans had a period of unemployment or some other hole in their work history, according to Monster's 2019 “State of the Candidate” survey.

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Although gaps may be more common now, they still have the potential to affect your standing in terms of future jobs. A 2019 field experiment conducted by ResumeGo found that applicants who had employment gaps were 45 percent less likely to land interviews. The good news is that applicants who provided a reason for the break between jobs received close to 60 percent more interviews, according to the experiment.

With millions of Americans out of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, these gaps will likely carry even less of a stigma, says résumé expert and career coach Debra Boggs, cofounder of D&S Professional Coaching, a career consulting firm in Portland, Maine. Even so, it's essential that you address them effectively.

Here are five tips to keep in mind.

1. Don't try to hide it

When it comes to masking a break in work history, recruiters and hiring managers have seen it all, Boggs says. And if they sense you're trying to mislead them, that could cost you an opportunity.

Instead, try including three to five short bullet points at the beginning of your résumé that highlight the skills and attributes you believe will matter most for the job you're seeking, she suggests. This written “highlight reel” can, and should, be customized for each prospective employer. “That way, it doesn't look like you're trying to hide anything,” Boggs says. But you're still showcasing reasons you would be a valued member of the team.

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2. Share your story

Be prepared to discuss the reason for the gap, says Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing agency. If you took time off for caregiving responsibilities or to go back to school, be forthright about that. If you were part of a big layoff, know the story of what happened and discuss it without disrespecting your former company. The interviewer will likely understand that disruptions happen, Gimbel says. Having a brief, honest explanation as part of your bigger gap story is an important part of getting back in the game.

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3. List your accomplishments

Showcase what you did with the time you were not formally working, Gimbel advises. During periods of unemployment, finding a job can seem like a full-time job on its own, but there are also many opportunities to add skills and experience that can make you more marketable. If you took courses, acquired technology skills, did freelance work or volunteered in your industry, be sure to list those activities on your résumé, Gimbel says. Not only will you show that you're serious about your career and remaining relevant, but you'll also illustrate good organizational and time-management skills, he points out.

Gimbel says these actions can be guided in part by why you lost your last position. So if you were let go because you didn't have certain training or skills, work on building those while you have the time. “That's the person who gets hired,” he says.

4. Highlight your volunteer work

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Doing something meaningful can make a good gap story, too, says Damian Birkel, founder of Professionals in Transition Support Group, a career-assistance nonprofit based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and author of The Job Search Checklist: Everything You Need to Know to Get Back to Work After a Layoff.

Whether you distributed emergency resources with the Red Cross, raised funds for an animal shelter or volunteered remotely, be sure to showcase those accomplishments, why the work was important and what you learned, he says.

"I've seen 60-year-olds get hired quicker than someone half their age because they were ready, experienced, prepared [and] could account for their time,” Birkel observes.

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5. Save your earliest jobs for the interview

Some older job seekers may have another type of gap — positions they intentionally left off their résumé. Boggs typically recommends that an applicant's curriculum vitae be no more than two pages. That may require leaving off a few positions. “My rule of thumb,” she says, “is to include just the last 10 to 15 years, depending on the experience.” That's easy enough to explain, she notes, but you should refresh your memory and be prepared to discuss early positions, even if they're not on your résumé.

Employment holes aren't necessarily deal breakers, but being prepared to address them in a forthright manner can help you move from applicant to new hire more effectively.

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