Life can be unpredictable, occasionally throwing unexpected curveballs your way, leading to voluntary and involuntary career gaps. Any periods between jobs when you weren't formally working are called employment gaps. Because the COVID-19 pandemic led to layoffs and many people rethinking their work-life balance during this time of reflection, employment gaps on resumes are becoming increasingly common.
During the interview process, the recruiter or hiring manager will want you to explain any employment gaps to make sure it's a one-time deal that won't likely happen again. How you frame the employment gap matters. It's important to be honest while adding a positive spin to your situation.
Let's dive into what you need to know about how to explain gaps in employment during interviews:
- The difference between voluntary and involuntary gaps
- Types of employment gaps
- How to explain employment gaps
The difference between voluntary and involuntary gaps
The strategy for explaining an employment gap during an interview depends on whether or not it was your choice. Voluntary gaps occur when someone chooses to quit their job and take a break before starting a new one. This could be a sabbatical, going back to school, or taking a gap year to travel. Involuntary gaps are when you're forced to take time off, whether because of layoffs or needing to become a caretaker for a loved one.
Voluntary gaps often offer learning opportunities. You can talk about professional development, new skills, and how this time off has recharged you and made you ready to work again. If your employment gap was involuntary, explain the situation (without having to go into too much detail if it was personal) and what soft skills you were able to work on during your time off.
You don't need to be on the defensive and feel like you need to provide an excuse; the goal is to help the recruiter or hiring manager understand the reality of what happened.
Types of employment gaps
If you have a period of unemployment on your resume, it's okay; many other people do too. You may have chosen to take time off, which is a voluntary gap, or if it was out of your control, an involuntary gap. Recruiters and hiring managers understand that life happens. Sometimes you need to take a break and change careers. Other times, you get unlucky, and your company has to lay off some of its workforce.
If you have short periods of a couple of months where you were between jobs, these typically don't require an explanation other than that you were job hunting. Organizing your resume by years rather than months and years can be helpful, especially later on in your career. You don't want to lie or hide any gaps, but most companies do not consider less than six months a noteworthy employment gap.
Many workers choose at one point or another to take extended time off in between jobs. It could be spending six months traveling or a couple of years raising children. Voluntary gaps can be an exploratory time to focus on your life outside work. Sometimes you need personal time to rethink your career, learn a new skill, or try to start a business. Some people decide to go back to school, take courses online, or even change careers entirely.
According to a LinkedIn survey, 62% of workers have taken a break at some point in their careers. Many employers see voluntary breaks as a positive because candidates are often more refreshed and motivated after taking time off. Because of these findings, it's now possible to add a career break to your LinkedIn profile and highlight what skills you developed.
These are the most common reasons for voluntary gaps in employment
- Gap year. You may decide to take extended time off from your career to explore other interests. You could spend this gap year traveling, exploring hobbies, or volunteering.
- Skillbuilding. Many people decide to change careers or want to go back to school. You could take courses online or enroll in a university to learn new skills.
- Burnout. When work becomes too much, and you’re feeling overwhelmed and uninspired, taking extended time off can be the answer. Some people choose to quit a stressful job and spend time recharging before starting a new position.
- Parental Leave. Some parents choose not to return to work after having children, spending a year or even five caring for their children before returning to the workforce.
Taking time off that is not in your control or is unplanned is an involuntary career gap. While this used to be a red flag for recruiters and hiring managers, it's become more normalized after the COVID-19 pandemic and amid the current economic situation. Many companies have had to shut down or lay off a significant part of their workforce. Today, layoffs are still happening, especially in the tech industry.
Being forced to take time off due to a layoff or having to take care of yourself or a loved one is not always ideal, but it shouldn’t hurt your chances as a candidate. Companies that have a culture of empathy and compassion understand the need to prioritize one's health and take time to recover from an illness. Caretaking for a loved one can help develop soft skills like organization, communication, patience, and problem-solving.
These are the most common reasons for involuntary gaps in employment
- Layoffs. During a layoff, the company terminates your job, but it's not your fault or due to your performance. Layoffs are typical because of company finances or strategy changes.
- Health. You may need to take time off because of your personal health or having to become a caretaker for someone in your family.
- Job hunting. Whether you quit or were laid off, finding a new job may take longer than expected, leading to an employment gap.
- Getting fired. Many people have been let go by their employers; it happens. Firing is when your employer terminates your employment. This can be for any reason in states with at-will employment.
If you're between jobs or currently unemployed, you can work on learning new skills and perfecting your resume and portfolio to help land a great job. Freelancing is a great way to continue to build your skills, gain experience, and earn income while looking for a full-time job. You may even find that you're able to build a steady client list and support yourself as a freelancer.
How to explain employment gaps
You may not always go immediately from one job to the next during your career. Finding the right job can take time, which is completely normal. As a rule of thumb, an employment gap is a significant time between jobs, typically six months or more.
Any noticeable gap in your resume will likely come up during the interview process. You’ll want to be prepared to talk about it and frame it in the best possible light. Think about what you learned during the gap and how you can tell the story using the STAR format.
- Situation. Set the scene of what happened. If it’s personal, you can be brief about the details.
- Task. Explain what the goal was during this time and any responsibilities you had.
- Action. Highlight what you did during the gap, mentioning any personal development and skills-building.
- Result. Emphasize what you learned from the experience and how it helped prepare you for your next job.
When explaining career gaps during an interview, you want to be honest and confident. The goal is to briefly tell your interviewer the situation, with only the most essential background details, and then reinforce the skills you developed that make you an excellent candidate. They want to know whether or not it was voluntary and that it's not likely to be an issue at your next job.
Taking control of the narrative and figuring out its positives, even if they seem very limited, can give you another chance to sell yourself. You don’t need to apologize. Recovering from an illness or condition can be a time of reflection and career goal-setting. Caretaking shows character. Being laid off can motivate you to learn new skills. Think about your story and the best possible version of it.
Examples of how to explain gaps in your career
If it was voluntary:
I chose to take a gap year after working for X amount of years at X company to travel and recharge. During this break, I was able to experience many different cultures and discover new creative hobbies that fulfill me outside of work. Taking time for myself helped me feel more inspired and creative and gave me a new perspective on approaching [insert challenge] in industry.
After working at X company for X years as a [insert role], I decided that to advance in my career, I needed to upskill. I took this time to think about where I wanted to be in the next year, five years, and ten years, and then mapped the steps I needed to get there. During my gap year, I took online classes on [topic] and earned [skill] certificates while freelancing to gain immediate on-the-job experience with these new skills and build my portfolio.
After working steadily for X years, I needed to take a break from work to focus on my own personal development to avoid burnout. During this time, I explored what brings me joy outside of work and strategies for maintaining work-life balance and managing stress. I joined a gym and found a supportive exercise community that I love. I’m excited to start a new position and can't wait to share my ideas and be part of a team again.
While I love what I do, I decided to take four years off to stay home after my first child was born. I enjoyed my time at home, and now I'm excited to return to work. As a stay-at-home parent, I volunteered at the local library, organizing reading events for kids and freelanced when I had extra time. Parenting has taught me many soft skills that I will bring to my next position, like time management and patience.
If it was involuntary:
In an effort to reduce costs, X company decided to lay off X percent of its workforce, including my team. After being laid off, I have been searching for companies with positions that I think I would enjoy. This job appealed to me because [insert reason]. I have been learning [X] skills in my free time and think it will help me [insert why it makes you a more competitive candidate].
I had to take time off to become a caretaker for my parent, who suddenly became ill. During this time, I was able to focus on many soft skills like communication, organization, patience, and problem-solving that I will carry over to my next role. I was able to set up a home healthcare service to take over from me and am excited to return to work.
I decided that I needed a change in my career, and my current position wasn't a great fit. After giving my notice and resigning, finding a new job took longer than expected. When I wasn't job hunting, I volunteered at my local animal shelter and helped with their social media campaigns and marketing during my free time.
After college, I really needed a job and took the first offer I could find without thoroughly evaluating whether or not it was the best fit. The responsibilities of the role quickly changed after I accepted the position. My manager needed someone who was an expert at managing databases, spreadsheets, and running reports, and I wasn’t that person and didn’t have the right skill set. I took [X] course on my own time to help close my skills gap, but I still couldn’t keep up with the workload. I couldn’t get up to speed fast enough and was let go from the position.
Don't overthink it
Having a gap in your career isn't the red flag to recruiters that it once was. More workers are taking gaps to recharge, and many industries have seen layoffs recently. When discussing any employment gaps, it's important to be confident, provide only the needed personal details, and promote yourself positively. Avoid lying or hiding significant gaps, as it can give a negative perception of what happened. Every story has two sides, and you want to tell the story that focuses on the positive and reassures your interviewers that you're ready for the job.
Taking time off, whether involuntary or voluntary, is an opportunity to work on your skills and even gain experience through freelancing. See what jobs are available right now on Upwork that fit your skill set.
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