How to Address Gaps in Employment History

By Peter Newfield

Life would certainly be a lot easier if your career history could be perfectly presented on a resume. But for many job seekers, a few missing years can rise up to haunt you when sending these critical documents out to headhunters and prospective employers. How do you tactfully, accurately address the missing years in your resume and/or cover letter?

Some of the most common reasons for having years unaccounted for on a resume many include taking time off to have a baby/raise a family, going back to school for higher education or technical training, enrollment in the military, recovering from a traumatic accident or illness, caring for an elderly parent or sick child for an extended period of time, residence in a rehabilitation facility, or incarceration.

Obviously, some of these reasons will not be looked upon as favorably as others, even in this enlightened, politically correct employment era. But make no mistake -- no reasons for gaps in employment history should be included on the resume document. If you can explain the time away from employment and feel that it would be important for a prospective employer to know this information, you may include it briefly in your cover letter.

For those individuals who do have gaps in employment history, for whatever reason, the best resume format to use is the Functional Format. While a standard Reverse Chronological or Modified Functional type of resume may work best for those who have been consistently climbing up the ranks in one particular industry, these resume formats will not help the job seeker with a problem of employment gaps.

The Functional Format resume is the answer for the job applicant who has worked in more than one industry, has changed careers, has gone back to school to pursue training in a new field, or who is returning to the workforce. A Functional Format can prevent a job candidate from being pigeon-holed into one specific field or level of experience or penalized for gaps in employment, per se. The Functional Format resume can provide the platform for you to showcase your varied strengths, talents, and experiences.

Let’s take the example of an individual who has been out of the workforce for a number of years and is now looking for a job. The resume would start out with a brief Summary of Qualifications, which is a 3-8 sentence overview of skills and areas of experience, and then proceed with a section entitled Areas of Strength, which could be a list of key words appropriate to your professional experience or could be broken down into several distinct areas of experience with bulleted items. Maybe your Areas of Strength include Sales and Public Relations or Teaching and Office Administration. You can make each one a separate category and bullet 3 or 4 items under each heading to indicate your experience and skills in these areas.

One of the most common reasons for a significant gap in employment history is taking time off to raise a family. If the returning professional had a career path 10 or 15 years earlier and would like to re-enter that same field of interest, then the next section of Professional Experience can list those related jobs, titles, and responsibilities. Do not omit the dates! By leaving off dates of employment on a resume, you will raise more questions than if you list dates from the 1970’s or 1980’s.

However, in the time that you were not formally employed in your field, you may have gained additional experience while you were out of the workforce which should be included on your resume. Were you the Treasurer of a civic organization for the past five years? Were you an unpaid docent in the local museum? Did you direct or plan activities as a volunteer for an after-school center? Were you a sports coach or Scoutmaster on the weekends or during the evenings? List this experience, dates, and responsibilities under a section on the resume entitled Additional Experience. Then end the resume with a Computer Skills and/or Education section.

The second most common reason for gaps in employment history is faced by job seekers with disabilities, illness, or family-related issues. Again, the advice is to not include any mention of your particular handicap, disability, or medical history in the resume -- it is against the law regarding equal opportunity employment rules. In the same way that the returning worker must address the absence of years on a resume, the disabled job seeker should use a functional resume format to address gaps in years of employment or changes in fields of interest. If you were able to take any classes or technical training or work part-time or volunteer at all while in rehabilitation from an automobile accident, caring for an elderly parent or staying by the side of a child undergoing medical treatment, these can and should be included on the resume under Additional Experience.

The common thread in all of these cases is to highlight your skills and accomplishments so that your overall experience and knowledge can be presented to your best advantage. If you feel that your particular circumstances should be expressed to the prospective employer or job screener, then you can briefly mention this in your cover letter.

The value of a cover letter is the ability to present your intentions, qualifications, and availability to a prospective employer in a succinct, appealing format. While your resume can give the specifics on places of employment, responsibilities, and educational background, a cover letter is your first chance to make an impression on the job screener and personalize the attached information contained in the resume.

Never include negative information in your cover letter such as personality conflicts with previous employers, pending litigation, or sarcastic remarks like “I was making dirt!”. If you bad-mouth past employers, interviewers will feel uneasy and may not even call you in for an interview.

The returning teacher may include a sentence or two in the cover letter such as, “As you can see on the enclosed resume, I have a Masters Degree in Special Education and have more than ten years of teaching experience in the XYZ and ABC School Districts. While I have taken a leave from teaching over the past five years to raise my two daughters, I have recently begun working as a Substitute Teacher in several local school districts and am anxious to resume a full-time teaching position.” She is focusing the Personnel Director’s attention on the ten years of relevant teaching experience that she has and is also providing information that she is pursuing current experience in the field through Substitute Teaching.

An operations manager who was downsized and took time off to go back to school in preparation for a career change may include the following information in his cover letter. “I would like to transfer my strategic planning and project management skills into the financial management arena where my interests are targeted. I have already completed six hours towards my MBA in Finance and would like to build a new career in the financial services field.” Again, the job applicant is stating that he has skills and experiences in a different industry but that he is re-directing his efforts, attending graduate school, and seeking an entry into a new field.

Take the time to craft your resume and cover letter to accurately present your skills and experiences and your efforts will be rewarded.

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Peter Newfield is President of®, one of the premier resume writing services in the United States. He is The Resume Expert for,,, and the former Resume Expert for, Spencer Stuart Talent Network and the Career Center on AOL. View samples at: