The longer you are out of the workforce, the harder it can be to rejoin it. Research has found that when Americans are out of work for more than six months, it gets significantly harder to be hired.
Sometimes that’s due to mismatches between what employers want and what employees need. But many times it’s because of the biases employers can hold against people who are unemployed long-term.
When they see a long gap on your résumé, employers often assume that “you looked for a job but couldn’t find it and, therefore, there’s something about you that’s a red flag. Or, regardless of the why, being out of the workforce is associated with loss of skills/experiences and [they assume] they’d have to spend more time, money in up-skilling [you],” said Anyelis Cordero, founder of Propel on Purpose Coaching, a career coaching service designed for first-generation professionals.
That’s why it’s important to be upfront about résumé gaps, especially for people who took time away from their careers to have kids and have an especially long gap as a result. It can feel awkward to bring it up to employers, but research backs up the fact that employers give preference to applicants who explain significant résumé gaps compared with those who do not.
Why it helps to be upfront about your résumé gap
One experiment by economists at Vanderbilt Law School found that female job applicants raised their chances of getting hired by a “staggering” amount when they explained that a 10-year résumé gap was related to the decision to have children, compared with applicants who did not.
The economists created bios for female applicants with similar educational backgrounds, strong references and work histories. In theoretical hiring scenarios, study participants were 30 to 40 percentage points more likely to choose the applicant who volunteered the reason for her résumé gap.
“The personal information gave no indication whether the woman would be a more or less productive employee. This was entirely neutral information,” said Joni Hersch, the study’s lead author, in an interview. “Yet the number of people who preferred the woman who explained her résumé gap was staggering.”
The research suggests that ― for women, at least ― employers have what the economists in the study call ambiguity aversion: Those in a position to hire would rather know upfront if the applicant’s personal issues and family life are compatible with the employer’s expectations than to be left uncertain.
If you are a parent starting a job search after time away from your career, here’s how to strategically address your résumé gap with prospective employers:
1. You can straight-up explain your parenting gap and list valuable related experience on your résumé.
Just because you did not have an official job title while being a parent or doing concurrent or related volunteer work doesn’t mean you can’t mention those experiences on your résumé.
Résumés are how you market where you want to go in your career and are not meant to just list all your job experiences. Any skills or certifications you gained during your gap that are relevant to the job you are trying to get would be helpful to mention.
“Unpaid work is work and absolutely counts as valuable experience on a résumé and in an interview,” said Becca Carnahan, a career coach who works with mothers.
Carnahan cited an example of a client who was looking for jobs after taking off 18 years to take full-time care of a son with health challenges.
“Because of her personal experience managing care for her son, she was interested in a role within the health care industry,” Carnahan said. “On her résumé, she listed her caregiving role, highlighting her experience advocating for her son and navigating the complexities of the health care system. This experience made her an ideal fit for the patient services role she landed.”
You can also mention your career break at the top on your résumé, before you list your job experiences, in a statement that summarizes your career. That’s where you can also note any other initiatives you’re taking to be the best candidate, said Sonu Ratra, founder of Women Back to Work, a program that prepares women to return to work after a career break.
And when listing previous job titles on your résumé, you can be upfront that your current role is full-time parent while listing under that title any of the volunteer work you did at the time, said Kristen Fitzpatrick, managing director of alumni, career and professional development at Harvard Business School.
You can also tie your current job title to relevant experiences you are having while caregiving. Someone interested in a business development job should highlight fundraising accomplishments from their volunteer work in the community, Carnahan shared as an example.
“Project work done on a contract basis or pro bono can, and often should, appear on the résumé, too, to show how an individual has stayed connected in their industry,” she said. “The role and title you include on your résumé may not be ‘caregiver’ or ‘parent,’ but instead would be ‘PTA treasurer,’ ‘board member’ or ‘communications consultant.’”
2. Don’t see your career break as something to defend. It will help your confidence and your case to talk matter-of-factly.
In job interviews, you don’t need to lead with an explanation of your time off. A time to mention it will come up naturally with common interview prompts like “Tell me about yourself” or “Why are you looking for a job here?”
Once there’s an opening, you can discuss how taking time off to parent added value to the kind of person you are and the experiences you bring to the table.
A natural conversation might unfold like “‘I started my career in the financial services industry,’ [then] you walk them through a couple of experiences. ‘Then my personal life changed, and I became a mom for the first time…. I have spent the last two years raising my child. And now that they are in daycare, I’m happy to enter the workplace, especially seeing as there is a talent gap in this industry.’” Then you can launch into the experiences you accumulated that address the talent gap, Cordero said.
That way, you can briefly mention the reason for your time off while tying it back to the experiences and skills you have gained that make you the best candidate for the role. Being clear on the value you offer is what will get you the job, Cordero said, which begins with clarifying it to yourself and being able to effectively communicate it.
The point is that the way you tell your story can leave a lasting impression, and you want to talk about your career break matter-of-factly, not defensively.
Ratra said that after experiencing job rejections, it is common for parents returning to the workforce to feel apologetic about their time away.
“They’ve been interviewed, they’ve been rejected. This goes on and on. Their confidence does take a hit. Therefore, their first reaction [in job interviews] is ‘I took a break, but this is why!’ There is a bit of self-pity, and we don’t wan’t them to have that,” Ratra said. “We want to normalize people taking breaks.”
You should be prepared to have a response if an interviewer asks about your career gap, but Ratra said you should always focus on the direct effect of what you learned as it relates to the job you want.