Own your career break: how to explain your time away from the workforce

Not every career path is linear. Sometimes an unexpected disruption takes us off one trail and puts us on another. And in our work lives, that can mean losing a job, taking time off to care for family, or dealing with an illness or injury that keeps you out of work for a time. Whatever the reason, you may have gaps in your resume. And you’re not alone–a recent LinkedIn survey found that almost two-thirds of working adults had taken a career break at some point in their working lives.

In the past, the goal was to cover that up as much as possible, to avoid biases and discrimination against people who don’t have continuous work experience. Now, gaps are becoming more and more commonplace–especially after the upheaval during the COVID pandemic years. Resume gaps and time spent out of the workforce are a reality for many qualified workers. It’s also a time when employers are increasingly mindful of finding and keeping good employees amid the “Great Resignation” and hiring crunches. If you have breaks in your work history, you don’t necessarily have to pretend they don’t exist–you can help make them part of your overall narrative.

Be upfront about your career break

Unexpected things happen. Most hiring managers understand that on a person-to-person level, but unless you help manage their understanding of why you might have gaps and what makes you qualified for this job now, there might still be biases working against you. Your interview is a good chance to be frank about any gaps or challenges you have. For example, if you were laid off due to Covid-related economic challenges, it’s okay to say that.

This kind of gap is becoming so common that LinkedIn has even implemented a new feature called “Career Breaks,” which allows users to offer more information about how and when they were out of the workforce. This information is visible to recruiters and gives visibility into why someone has taken a break, instead of leaving it up to the recruiter to fill in the blanks, potentially working against the prospective employee.

Try to show continuous growth

Even though you may not have been working a traditional role in your field for a period of time, don’t sell yourself short on what you’ve done to stay current. If you did volunteer work, took classes, kept current on certifications or trends, or otherwise did things to stay fresh professionally, be sure to note it. Again, the cover letter or networking profile is a good place to call out these kinds of activities (and reiterate that you were still working on your skills and development even when you weren’t an active employee), in addition to the resume. You want to make sure you’re giving the reader context about what you’ve been working on so that they don’t just assume you were totally out of the game, and not necessarily up to speed.

When you’re in an interview, especially, be ready to demonstrate that you’re up on whatever’s happening in the industry, and what’s expected in a current role.

Use your resume to your advantage

Your resume is your chance to set the narrative for any hiring managers or recruiters reading it. You’re not locked into the same old format (work experience-forward), which can be unforgiving for any breaks in employment–and raise eyebrows. If you’re concerned about non-linear work experience, start with a “Skills” section that shows your qualifying skills, as well as how current you are in your field. For dates, consider using just years instead of month + year, which can help minimize obvious gaps in a timeline.

Again, you don’t need to hide gaps like they’re secret, but if you want to minimize their appearance, you can focus your resume on the things you want the reader to know most about your qualifications. You should always focus on the positive: the qualities you have that will make you a valuable asset for the job, and your current knowledge and skills. There shouldn’t be any shame in career breaks–and if you own them, explain them, and have confidence in the work you can do, you can help remove some of the stigmas that have existed in the past.

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