Periods of unemployment happen to all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s an unexpected layoff or extended illness.
Do employment gaps matter? Sometimes, they do—but you can frame them in a positive, purposeful way.
Get tips that can help show you how to explain employment gaps without hurting your chances of getting the job.
Is it ok to have gaps in your resume? This is a natural concern for older adults who are looking for a job after spending some time out of the workforce. You may worry employers will look at you differently than other candidates or doubt your ability to perform. You wonder if your resume will be shuffled to the back of the pile.
Do employment gaps matter?
Employers do—and should—care about large gaps in employment. Since they invest major time and resources in screening, onboarding, and training new employees, companies must be selective about who they hire. A resume gap could signal you had trouble finding a new job after a job loss, or that you have difficulty making a commitment. They may wonder what you were doing while unemployed and whether you're trying to hide something. If you have gaps in your resume, hiring managers want to know the “why” behind that period of unemployment. More importantly, they want to be sure your absence from the workforce doesn’t imply behavioral patterns or attitudes that might make you a risky hire.
What is considered a big gap in employment? According to Indeed.com, any break over six months is considered significant.
The good news is this: gaps in your resume don't have to be a job-search dealbreaker. Many older adults have gaps in their work history for a variety of reasons—such as company downsizing, extended illness, caring for a sick loved one, or going back to school. These reasons usually have nothing to do with a person’s ability to perform the job at hand.
Whether you’ve been out of work for six months or 10 years, the key is being prepared for employers’ questions.
Below are some strategies for easing hiring managers’ concerns and asserting yourself as the best person for the job.
How to explain employment gaps
- Be honest. It can be tempting to conceal gaps in your work history when you’re trying to present yourself in the best light possible to employers. But lying on your resume is never a good idea. Since they review so many of them, hiring managers are skilled at spotting inconsistencies and other red flags on resumes. Most verify work history and may even perform background checks. If you’re untruthful about employment dates, it’s likely you’ll be found out eventually—and you could even lose your job over it. Honesty is always the best option.
- Don’t include your entire work history. When you’re an older job seeker, there’s no need to share all of your work experience. Instead, list only those you’ve held over the last 10 to 15 years and stick to positions most relevant to the job you're applying for. This means you don’t have to worry about employment gaps that fall outside of this timeframe. Limiting your work history this way can also help prevent age discrimination.
- Downplay smaller gaps by leaving out the month. While being out of the workforce for years is not something you can cover up, you don't have to shine a spotlight on every gap. If you were unemployed for a year or less, you can soften the impact simply by leaving out the month when you list your employment dates. For example: "Sales Associate, 2021 to 2022." This allows you to be transparent about employment dates without emphasizing short breaks. Another thing to keep in mind is the formatting of your resume. Using bold font or a smaller font can draw attention to employment dates—so you’ll want to avoid those practices.
- Explain employment gaps in your cover letter. In general, there's no dedicated place on your resume to detail the reasons you were out of work for an extended period. This is where your cover letter comes in handy. Address resume gaps proactively by calling them out in your cover letter. Summarize the reasons for your hiatus—one or two straightforward sentences will do. Don’t get too wordy, since you want to keep the focus on your relevant experience and attributes and why you’re the right choice for the job. If additional details are needed about any work history gaps, the hiring manager will ask during the interview. What you do want to emphasize in your cover letter is your drive, determination, and willingness to learn new things. It’s also important to convey you’ve kept up to date on industry trends and skills. If you have gaps in your employment, your resume must work extra hard to illustrate the value you bring to a potential employer.
- Highlight what you did accomplish while out of work. You may have been out of the workforce for a bit—but that doesn't mean you sat around twiddling your thumbs. If you took on any unpaid roles or noteworthy projects during that period, be sure to say so on your resume. This shows you stayed active and engaged even though you weren’t formally in the workplace. Volunteer or caregiver roles should be listed on your resume just like a paying job. Any degrees completed or courses taken can be noted in the Education section of your resume. For example:
- You volunteered for your community food bank.
- You went back to finish your degree.
- You brushed up on your technology skills by taking a course.
- You were the sole caregiver to an ailing family member.
- You pursued a side project important to you.
- You traveled extensively and explored new cultures.
- Consider any transferable skills or perspectives you gained and how they make you a stronger candidate for the job. For instance, maybe you came up with a successful fundraising idea for a charity you volunteer for. Or you managed the event committee at your church and gained valuable leadership skills. Don’t hesitate to think outside of the box!
Get set up for job success with SCSEP and NCOA's Job Skills CheckUp
Searching for a new job? Or returning to work after a break? NCOA recently launched its new employment tool, Job Skills CheckUp, to help older adults get tips on how to succeed as a mature worker. All you have to do is tell us about your goals, describe your current employment situation, and the Job Skills CheckUp will create a personalized plan to help you find job openings, build a professional network, prepare for job interviews, and more.
In addition, the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) provides qualified older adults age 55+ with on-the-job training and job placement.
When the pandemic began, Tuan, age 68, was laid off from his job as a cashier. The uncertain job climate that followed—combined with the language barrier—made it difficult for him to find another position. That’s when Tuan turned to SCSEP.
SCSEP matched him with an on-the-job training opportunity at Boat People SOS, a nonprofit focused on Vietnamese-American civic and political activism. Today, Tuan works there full-time as a Community Health Project Coordinator. He’s excited to be back in the workforce and following his passion for helping others.
With SCSEP, you can earn money in a community-based service position while building valuable skills and self-confidence. You must be at least age 55 and have low income to take part in SCSEP. If you’d like to apply, find your local SCSEP office.