Three [More] Ways to Address Employment Gaps

In a previous post, we looked at using functional and hybrid resumes as a way to mask employment gaps. This one builds from that, and goes over three more ways to deal with employment gaps while on the job search: cover letters, strategic volunteering, and retooling. I’ve broken them down by where you are in the job search, so there should be something here for everyone!

As I said before, employment gaps are a tough hurdle to get over when you’re actively looking for a job. You can’t go back in time to change things, yet some recruiters will side-eye a resume that shows that the applicant hasn’t been consistently employed or has dabbled in different industries. Despite the fact that life happens to literally everyone, some people don’t get a chance to make a comeback on their own terms.

I’ve seen it so many times, especially since the Great Recession. The financial crash of the early ’00s devastated the careers of quite a few people I know both personally and professionally. Most of whom are like me – millennials. We always catch heat for not saving money or for job hopping or for generally not behaving like our parents and grandparents, but that’s just because we’ve been hit be forces outside of our control and refuse to buy into the game. Those of us who are millennials of color are perhaps most acutely aware of this, since many of us also saw our parents struggle while we were growing up.

But we also grew up being told that we have to “love your work.” Do what you love and you won’t feel like you’re working at all was on my high school guidance counselor’s wall. (After having been a high school guidance counselor, I can see the humor in that poster!) In our pursuit of both personal and professional happiness, we didn’t do the things that would get us a job when we really needed one. Because it’s one thing to hop around while you’re employed, it’s another to get your foot in the door when you’ve been stuck out cold for some time.

If a resume reboot a la the last post isn’t your thing (or you just want some other options to try), here are three more ways to work around for employment gaps.

Make cover letters your new BFF.

Most job seekers don’t want to write a cover letter, even when it’s required for the job. But if you’re on an active job search and trying to account for an employment gap (or just a nontraditional work history), this document should become your new best friend. Even if you’re using a non-chronological resume format, your cover letter can serve as the ultimate bridge document between the position you’re applying for and your relevant experiences. Think of it as your employment Rosetta Stone (the real one, not the company!)

To write an effective cover letter that will de-emphasize your employment gaps, you need to focus on your skills. Write meaningful descriptions that highlight your mastery of the particular skill set that is outlined in the job description. Don’t apologize for the fact that they might be older skills or ones that you gained outside of traditional work experiences. You have them, right? Because that’s usually all that matters. If you can convince the reader that you can do their job, your lack of employment won’t matter as much.

In addition, you can use your cover letter to explain away certain employment gaps. I say ‘can’ instead of ‘should’ because it really depends on 1) your comfort level with disclosing such personal information and 2) if it helps or hinders your cause. I wouldn’t devote more than a sentence or two in either the opening or closing paragraphs to such details, unless you’ve developed a killer skill set on your own time. For example: A stay at home parent or someone with a string of self-employment stints could easily write an entire cover letter on what transferable skills they’ve picked up along the way. As always, be strategic with what you say and how much you tell a potential employer.

[Need help writing a cover letter? Check out this post!]

Volunteer in your field.

If you know that your desired field isn’t hiring at the moment, consider volunteering in a role related to what you’re trying to do. This is a great way to get firsthand, updated knowledge so that you can convincingly write and talk about it in future cover letters and interviews. Such experiences can also fill the employment gap because adding such an activity to your resume will show recruiters that you continued to engage in the field even when you weren’t being paid for it. If it’s a new area for you, this demonstrated interest will put you ahead of people who have neither work nor volunteer experiences.

Volunteering can also be a great way to network in your area of interest. Don’t be a weirdo and treat it like an official networking event by handing out business cards on your first day or making it known that you’re only there for a resume boost. This is the exact opposite of how you want to play this! Instead, talk to both the paid employees and other volunteers about what you’ve done in the past and what your goals are, then reciprocate. Having genuine conversations takes the shmooziness away and allows you to make authentic connections with people. Try it. You never know what could open up!

Retool yourself.

If you know that your employment gaps are such that it will be almost impossible to get the job you want, consider getting more training and/or relevant certifications in your field. Not only will your participation in such a program close a gap, but you can also gain access to employment-related resources that come with formal enrollment in a school or technical program. My 9-5 is at a community college with both degree and non-degree students, and there is no difference in how much support students get from advisors.

If enrollment in a formal program isn’t for you, retooling isn’t completely out of the picture. Websites like Skillshare, Lynda, and Udemy offer legitimate courses that you can use to gain new skills. Since they’re not accredited in the same way as a traditional school or training program, you’ll have to get creative with how you account for these experiences on your job search. Personal websites, online communities, and an “Independent Projects” section on your resume are a few ways to show potential employers what you’ve been up to.

Looking for work is hard enough without having to deal with employment gaps. As long as you keep a positive mindset and implement some of the suggestions above (and from the previous post), you should be okay. Have any of you overcome employment gaps? Let me know the strategies you used in the comments!


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.