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Re-entering the Workforce – overcoming employment gap challenges

Coming back into the workforce after being jobless for some time can seem like an insurmountable challenge, but it’s far from impossible. In fact, the stigma around employment gaps is lower now than ever before: According to the Wall Street Journal, 49% of 400 U.S. recruiters surveyed after the 2020 pandemic no longer believe resume gaps are a red flag when it comes to hiring.

Employers are seeking skilled, dedicated workers like you — so here are six of our top tips to help you stand out from other applicants and get back on track in your career following an employment gap.

Getting reacquainted with your industry:

Before you start applying for your top-choice jobs, take a moment to get reacquainted with your industry since your departure. This is the time to re-connect with contacts and revive any professional relationships that may have fallen to the wayside. If you’re unfamiliar with the current news, trends and technologies in your industry, it’s best to brush up on those, too — and that includes browsing recent listings for relevant jobs to see what skills are in high demand.

If you’re planning on entering a new industry or field, talk to as many industry professionals and experts as possible before sending out your resume and cover letter. This will give you a better understanding of what employers are looking for from new hires and where you may fall in terms of experience and relevant skills. You may also consider volunteering in your new industry of interest before committing to the career path, as it’s a low-stakes way to get some hands-on experience.

Brush up on key skills:

Professional skills are like muscles: Use them or lose them. Depending on the length of your resume gap, employers may have concerns about your skills potentially being rusty or outdated. Before you begin completing applications, consider completing some professional training or continuing education, obtaining certificates or additional degrees, etc. It’s never a bad idea to sharpen your skill set, and the recent date on your new qualifications will help you catch the attention of employers and assure them that your skills are still relevant in the industry, regardless of how long you’ve been out of the game.

Gain new experience:

If you have been unemployed for a year or more, it may be a good idea to consider contract, temporary or volunteer work in the short-term. While you can’t go back in time to bridge your employment gap, you can flesh out your resume now with less permanent work, sharpening your skills as you do so. As Forbes noted in a 2022 column on returning to the workforce, “you can’t put a price tag on the value of developing a routine and getting paid for your labor” — not to mention the networking opportunities you may discover at these new gigs.

Use a functional resume format:

These days, employers aren’t looking for resumes with sharp aesthetics, easy-to-parse credentials and well-explained work histories. That’s because employers aren’t looking at resumes at all — at least, not in the first round of hiring.

The realities of today’s modern job market, especially employers’ use of applicant tracking systems (ATS) for hiring, can be a hard pill to swallow for job seekers who may assume that their resume is being read and decided upon by a human being. In truth, most online applications and resumes are being crawled by ATS for specific keywords and red flags, with the software ultimately making the choice between which applicants advance to the next round of interviews.

So, what does the abundant use of ATS mean for job seekers like you? In short, you may have to change the way you think about a “successful” resume vs. an “unsuccessful” one.

If you know you’re qualified for the jobs to which you’re applying but can’t seem to secure any interviews, it may have nothing to do with your experience or skills at all — and everything to do with the way you’re marketing them.

You wouldn’t introduce yourself on a first date by rattling off all your biggest character flaws, so why would you position your time away from the workforce like a cavernous “gap” smack dab in the middle of your resume? Consider converting your resume to a functional format, which highlights an applicant’s skills rather than their work history. This will not only make it easier for ATS to seek and find relevant skills on your resume, but it will also help divert attention away from any employment gaps and key in on your most marketable abilities.

Keep it positive:

You might find yourself shying away from discussing your employment gap during hiring interviews due to feelings of embarrassment, shame, or a misplaced sense that it’s better left unaddressed. But nothing could be further from the truth! A willingness to discuss employment gaps in a constructive light is actually a sign of a well-prepared candidate. If the situation that led to your period of unemployment was less-than ideal, there’s no need to pretend that it wasn’t a difficult time in your life, but it’s important to position it as a challenge you’ve overcome rather than a total derailment. You don’t need to provide every detail of the situation — in fact, it’s better if you don’t — but be honest with your interviewer, present the information in a positive way, and keep the conversation focused on your strengths.

Speaking of strengths: If you spent any portion of your “gap” time developing new skills or points of view, be sure to talk about those discoveries in interviews. Maybe your three-month trip backpacking around the world gave you a new perspective on how your work could factor into a global market, or perhaps your time as a stay-at-home parent sharpened your time management skills and improved your performance under pressure. Whatever you were up to during your “gap,” chances are it can be spun into a positive, enriching experience for you as a job candidate and potential employee.

Be patient:

We get it: You’re chomping at the bit to get back to work, and the job seeking process can be stressful for even the most qualified, prepared, gap-less candidates. Right-size your expectations by acknowledging that re-entering the workforce will likely take some time, as will re-establishing your professional identity and network. Give yourself the time and grace to clarify your goals and accept that you may not reach them on the timeline you would choose — and remember that, with perseverance and constant personal and professional improvement, you will find fulfilling employment and a path to success. Best of luck!

Looking for more job search help and resources? Find all our best tips and information for job seekers on our website.