Ask the IT Career Doctor: How Do I Handle Gaps in My Resume?

By Dave Willmer | February 2009

I was laid off from my IT position about a year ago and then underwent major surgery. Now that I have recuperated, I’m eager to get back to work, but I’m not sure where to start. What should I tell potential employers, if anything, about the months of downtime on my resume? I would appreciate any suggestions you have on how to get my career back on track.

Dave Willmer responds:
In the current economy, employers understand that more people are out of work through no fault of their own, whether the gap is due to difficult hiring conditions, raising a family, taking care of an aging parent, health problems or a combination of factors. Nevertheless, resume gaps do raise red flags. In fact, a survey by our parent company found that 93 percent of the senior executives polled said they would be concerned about a candidate’s fit for a position if his or her resume showed involuntary periods of unemployment. 

That might sound discouraging, but keep in mind that an employment gap tends to be a deal-breaker only if you mishandle it. If you address your absence honestly and skillfully, it shouldn not derail your job search.

Mind the gap
Your goal should be to minimize the effects of your time away from work, not to hide that time or misrepresent its duration. Trying to hide an employment gap is a surefire way to come across as having, well, something to hide. A hiring manager who is left to "fill in the blanks" about your history is likely to quickly move on to the next resume.Your resume’s cover letter is the ideal place to broach the subject.

Don’t provide a heartrending account of the period in question. Instead, provide a brief, matter-of-fact explanation, like this one: "My position was one of many eliminated in at Company X in February 2008. I then underwent successful surgery and recuperated for six months. I am now fully healthy and eager to return to work, and I’m currently taking a course in Technology Y to keep my skills up-to-date."

Another common error is to stretch the truth about employment dates. A prospective employer can easily uncover such a lie, eliminating your chances not only with that firm, but potentially also damaging your reputation with past employers and colleagues. In addition, the need to "keep your story straight" during interviews practically guarantees a nervous performance. By contrast, a forthright explanation in your cover letter sets the stage for open discussion of the subject.

Provide context
Job seekers who have been away for longer periods (perhaps a year or more) may want to consider a functional resume, which is organized according to experience, achievements and skills rather than dates of employment. Again, the intention isn’t to hide the employment gap but to place it within the broader context of what you can offer the employer. (Note that if you don’t address the gap in your cover letter, using such a resume format will only draw attention to it.)

IT professionals who have had extended absences should not overlook skills they may have honed while they were away from the industry. For instance, someone caring for an aging parent may have gained communication and negotiation skills while navigating the medical system. There doesn’t have to be a direct connection to technology for the experience to be relevant to employers. Hiring managers look for well-rounded candidates who can fit in quickly at their organizations and communicate with non-IT colleagues.

Even a forthright explanation may not entirely satisfy uncertainty raised by an employment gap. That’s why strong references are especially important for such job candidates. Make sure your references are well-informed about you and your time away from work. Even if you do have reliable references, make sure that all your friends, colleagues and past employers know you are now seeking a position – you never know where your next job offer will come from.

When your resume doesn’t lead to an interview invitation, don’t assume that your employment gap squashed your chances. Follow up with a brief letter expressing your continuing interest and reasserting what you can bring to the position. In a survey by our company, 82 percent of executives said job seekers should contact hiring managers within two weeks of submitting their resume.

Refresh your skills and connections
Hiring managers look for applicants who have remained professionally engaged and are keeping their skills current. If you haven’t done so already, join a professional association. Read IT publications and websites to stay abreast of industry trends. Also consider classes, workshops, conferences and seminars – all of which are opportunities for networking as well as learning.

Taking temporary or project-based work while you continue your job search may also help offset any remaining uncertainty by demonstrating your present ability to work. It also can help you identify skills that may need to be refreshed. Many technology staffing firms provide access to free training for registered candidates and can help you find opportunities that suit your talents and preferences.

A blank spot on your employment record can indeed hinder your job search, but only to the degree that you allow it to do so. By addressing the issue thoughtfully and assertively, you can ensure that your skills, experience and personal qualities – the things employers really care about – don’t disappear into that gap.

Dave Willmer is the executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis.