January 9, 2012
Job seekers: No need to highlight that work gap
I know a lot of people who are in the midst of dispiriting and anxiety-ridden job searches. Whenever I talk to one of these job-hunting friends, I hear the same questions over and over: Am I at all appealing to employers? Is my resume/cover letter/portfolio right? Why aren't I getting enough/any interviews?
Granted, lots of folks in my circle are trying to break back into the workforce after an extended absence. Many of these are mothers, and sometimes fathers, who took up to five years off their full-time career to have and raise children. But parents returning to work after an absence have a lot in common with another angst-ridden lot: the unemployed.
I've been there, believe me. At one point, juggling a full-time job with two kids in diapers was, bottom line, untenable. I had to take a break from the workforce. But after a couple of years, I began to think about going back and about the potential harm I had done to my career by leaving. When I was ready to return to work, would the proverbial trail be cold?
From time to time in this column, I'll answer some of the burning questions from my job-seeking friends and acquaintances. Here's a common one: Should a person address head-on (in a cover letter, for example) a glaring employment gap?
It's not an easy answer, and one many hiring managers disagree on. Many experts say that employment gaps should be addressed right off the bat only if really necessary and only within certain more-creative or less-structured fields or industries. Among conservative industries and larger corporations, it's best not to directly address or attempt to explain an employment gap in your cover letter, says career coach and workforce-development professional Jen Zuanich.
Highlighting time away from the workforce could hasten a gatekeeper's "filing" of your application before the hiring manager ever gets to see it, Zuanich says. If you feel that one line in a letter or statement of intent is necessary, address your time away professionally and without emotional detail.
Executive coach Janet McIntyre recommends not explaining a gap. "Employers and recruiters are looking for your qualifications in your resume and cover letter, so focus on the positive and stay to the point," she says. If you obtain an interview, you might be asked about a gap and can then craft an appropriate response.
Still, my job-hunting friends would say, those 12 months or five years constitute a pretty glaring hole that cannot be filled by listing tasks like "diaper changing, playground evaluation, worrywarting and unemployment-form mastery."
The best way to mitigate an employment gap is to not need to address it, says Zuanich. Volunteer work, part-time employment, contract work and community service can be used to fill gaps (and stay connected, and keep one's sanity).
Since her toddler was about a month old, Zuanich says, she has been doing per diem counseling and resume writing to stay active. When her son was 3 months old, she began serving as a volunteer/mentor for an organization. "This is absolutely on my resume," she says. "In this case, the work I performed is clearly in line with my career path/passion."
Organizations such as WorkSource Seattle-King County and Idealist can assist in finding outlets for your skills. Zuanich and McIntyre also cautiously suggest considering a functional resume (which highlights experience over history) rather than a chronological one.
Bottom line: It's not necessary to highlight your employment gap in a cover letter. Do not feel the need to explain a self-imposed parenting sabbatical or take the weight of the unemployment economy guiltily on your shoulders. And do not label yourself "Domestic CEO of the Singer Household, January 2006-March 2011," no matter how good you think that sounds.
Do make use of your time out of the workforce by maintaining your skills, volunteering your time, assisting an organization, freelancing -- and presenting those efforts to prospective employers.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
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