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How Long Is Too Long of an Employment Gap?

Coming back from months or even years out of the workforce

Young professional woman
Image courtesy of Annika Palmari

People have employment gaps for a myriad of reasons—travel, education, child or family care, unemployment, illness—the list goes on. No two cases are the same and no gap, whether by your own choice or circumstances beyond your control, makes you unemployable. You have grown, learned, and maybe even healed during your time outside of the workforce, and those experiences will be an asset to your next employer. 

Employment gaps are part of life, and talking about yours in a way that is positive and future-focused is essential in landing that next great position. 

How do you talk about your employment gap? 

How you talk about your employment gap depends on two factors: the length of time and the reason. We’ll address length of time first. 

Talking about the length of your employment gap

A break less than six months is easily attributed to a job search, and you don’t necessarily have to address it on your resume. If your employment break is longer than six months, it’s best to address the gap head-on with a short and to-the-point message that matches the format of the rest of your resume. For example, if your break was for caregiving, your resume may look like this:

Career Break / Sabbatical | Boston, MA
Mar 2019–Present

  • Managed household for sick family member

  • Coordinated appointments, in-home care, and documentation for ongoing treatment

  • Reconciled and tracked accounting and coordination of billing between insurance, hospital, and doctors

If you don’t  want to share the reason for your employment gap, you can simply write “career break” or “sabbatical” with no further detail. Be prepared, however, that you may be asked to address the break in an interview. I’ll share more on that later. 

Generally speaking, once you’ve been back from a career break for five years, or two substantial roles, you can remove the gap explanation altogether. 

Read more: 15 Companies Offering ‘Returnship’ or Return-to-Work Programs

Talking about the reason for your employment gap

Regarding the reasons for your employment gap: It’s for you to decide whether you’re comfortable sharing this information, but it is worth it to prepare for and rehearse your answer to this question. 

If you’re happy to discuss the reason your break, go ahead and share why you were out of the workforce, what you did during the time, what you learned, and why you're excited to return to traditional employment.

Don’t forget that what you were doing during your gap is likely relevant in the workplace. Some common things that people forget to share on their resume, or in interviews, when re-entering traditional employment include: volunteer leadership positions, freelance or gig work, fundraising, coordinating, organizing and accounting—to name just a few. Non-traditional and unpaid work can build and hone as many skills as traditional employment, so remember to talk about those skills and what you learned. 

I was laid off from my last job and have been looking for a new opportunity. In the meantime, I enrolled in an online accounting class and have been taking on administrative tasks at a local law practice. Working there has really honed my attention to detail and forced me to become very adaptable when it comes to changing project goals.

If you’re having trouble thinking of your strengths and transferable skills, enlist the help of a trusted friend or partner. It’s often much easier for others to see your accomplishments if you’re missing out on the annual performance review.

If you’re not comfortable sharing why you’ve been out of the workforce

If you’re not comfortable sharing the details of your time off, it can help to focus on a discovery or project outside of the reason for your break—a diversion of sorts. For example, you can briefly mention that you took time to support your family and also share that you were doing freelance work, studying, or doing some self-development that will help you in your new role.

I’ve spent the last three years chairing the board of the Sacred Heart Mission, managing household finances, and working on some long overdue personal development. Now I’m excited to join an organization where I can put these skills to work.

Whether or not you want to disclose the reason for your employment gap, a positive spin and look to the future are essential for both you and the interviewer to feel comfortable. Avoid focusing too much on the gap. It’s a part of your story that you should mention, but the focus should be on what you bring to your new role and how you can benefit your new employers. 

Read more: How to Decide What Skills to Put on a Resume

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