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1.3 Returning to the Workforce

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how gaps in employment history affect your hiring potential.
  2. Develop strategies for how to talk about gaps in a truthful and positive way.
  3. Learn how to overcome other potential obstacles relating to employment gaps.

Employment Gaps Raise Questions about Your Qualifications

Many perfectly good reasons can explain a gap in your work history:

  • unemployment, especially in a down market, where job searches take longer
  • family leave
  • medical leave
  • personal leave (e.g., to travel or try something new)

An employment gap raises questions about whether your skills are current, whether your industry expertise or functional knowledge is outdated, and if your network is still intact. When employers hire experienced people, it is often to use their skills right away, to take advantage of their up-to-date knowledge, and to get access to their network. If your skills, expertise, and network are questionable, and an employment gap weakens these three areas, then your value to the employer is weakened. Even if a prospective employer does not view you negatively because of a gap, all things being equal, the employer prefers a candidate with continuous work history to the one with a gap.

Because most of the downside of any gap is related to the job candidate being stale or having out-of-date skills, the length of the gap is very important. A gap of several months is much more easily overcome than that of several years. Multiple gaps also might give employers the impression that your career lacks forward progress and momentum.

The reason for the gap is also important. If you attribute the gap to being unable to find a job, the employer may question how desirable you are to its competitors. If the gap is for family leave, the employer may wonder if you are fully committed. If medical reasons kept you from working, the employer can legally only verify you are able to do the job in question, but this doesn’t mean the employer won’t wonder silently if you will be at your best. Finally, if your gap is due to personal pursuits, the employer may wonder if you are truly back for good or just biding time until your next adventure.

Take Control of the Message behind Your Gap

The more an employer wonders what’s behind your employment gap, the more negatively they might view your circumstances. You must be specific and deliberate in how you message the reasons behind your gap.

Be empowered about your choice to leave. When you talk about why you took time off, don’t sound sheepish. Don’t denigrate your experience. If it was a layoff, employers aren’t expecting you to be happy about being laid off, but you should, at the very least, stay composed and matter-of-fact. Simply state there was a layoff. Then move the conversation onto the present in a positive manner. Reiterate your interest in the current opportunity, rather than showing regret, anger, or any other lingering connection with your previous employer.

If your leave was medically related, you do not need to give details. Simply state you had a medical issue that needed to be taken care of, but, thankfully, you are well now! A future employer welcomes hearing that type of message.

Give detailed examples of what you accomplished and learned. If your gap is due to a layoff, don’t talk about your job search activity as the sole focus of your time. Talk about how you are keeping your skills and network current. Talk about what you’ve read recently as a signal that you are keeping abreast of the industry. Stress the positive in all that you have been doing.

Translate your time off into experience your prospective employer will appreciate. If you took a family leave, don’t focus on your parenting skills unless you are interviewing for a relevant position with children. Focus on how you coordinated playgroups, which shows organization, management, and attention to detail. Mention your fund-raising for school programs, which shows sales skills. If you took a leave to pursue a personal interest, make a case for how that experience contributes to your next role, for example, extensive travel might translate to international awareness and cross-cultural savvy.

Whatever the reason behind your gap, position it in a positive, optimistic, forward-thinking way. Perhaps the gap gave you the perfect opportunity to redirect your career to exactly what you are now most interested in. Use the reasons for your gap to make the case for why you are a strong candidate.

If you are having a tough time explaining a gap of any kind, find a resource, such as your school’s career services office, mentor, or coach to help you craft a meaningful, impactful message.

Convince Yourself First to Help Convince Prospective Employers

Are you 100 percent convinced that you are ready to return to the workforce after your time away? If you are looking for a return job to be a place where you can learn on someone else’s payroll, then you are not making the most compelling case for why a prospective employer should hire you. Get ready to work before you return to work.

Make sure your skills, expertise, and network are up to date. Use Excel to maintain your household budget so you can keep that skill up to date. Read trade journals dedicated to your industry and functional area. Join professional associations in your industry and functional area. You may want to volunteer so that you update your skills, expertise, and network in a working environment. These suggestions are useful to everybody in the job search, but for a candidate with a gap in employment, maintenance of your skills, expertise, and network is even more critical.

Make sure you have the financial cushion to sustain a longer search. It may take a while to rebuild your skills, expertise, and network and to convince prospective employers this has occurred. You may want to take temporary or project work even in an area unrelated to your target field to ensure you can support your financial obligations during your search.

Do you show the confidence that results from being 100 percent convinced you are ready to return to the workforce after your time away? If you doubt your own skills, it will be difficult to convince others. Make sure that you work on your story, examples, and reasons for why you are the best candidate for your target job.

If you are just settling back into your field after time away, your personal support network might have fallen away. You might not have a daily routine in place that keeps you motivated and active. Make sure you rebuild your environment to support your job search. Professional associations, networking groups, alumni chapters, mentors, or coaches may help with your confidence and emotional support.

If you have unresolved personal issues or extreme anxiety, frustration, or other emotional constraints, then you might consider enlisting a therapist or counselor to help you deal with these issues. Remember that it is not just the tactical issues of your job search that need care and attention. Make sure you tend to your emotional needs.

Key Takeaways

  • You have reasonable explanations for taking time off from your career, including a layoff, medical leave, family leave, or personal leave.
  • Your skills, expertise, or network might become out of date in your absence, or prospective employers might assume that has happened.
  • You need to make a strong case for why you took time off, how you benefited, and how the employer will benefit.
  • You also need to make sure you have skills, expertise, a network, financial cushion, confidence, and a support structure to make a successful return to the workforce.
  • You might consider seeing a therapist or counselor if you have unresolved emotional issues pertaining to your leave.

Exercises

  1. If you are returning from the workforce, write your story about why you took time off. Then edit your story by half and again by half, until you have the three top points of your time away. This is your compelling and concise message.
  2. Review your time off month by month or year by year and itemize specific accomplishments. Use a job description for a job you are targeting and make a case for how your accomplishments during the gap translate to the target job.