Job Search

How to Plug a Hole in Your Resume (Without Raising a Red Flag)

gap in work history

When you leave your job, it might take time to transition into a new role. In some cases, even executive-level professionals have to wait longer than six months to find an opportunity that’s worthwhile. In the meantime, having a large gap in your work history (especially if it’s more than year) can signal a red flag to employers.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to mask periods of unemployment on your resume. You might consider using a functional resume layout instead of listing your work experience in chronological order—but this could backfire. Most applicant tracking system (ATS) programs don’t import information correctly when a candidate uses nonstandard headings and organization. The practice has also become so widely practiced that it’s usually viewed as intentionally obscure.

But there are steps you can take to make the most of your temporary unemployment—and demonstrate that value to a recruiter or hiring manager.

10 Tips for Filling a Gap in Your Work History

1. Create a schedule to organize your job search.

When you’re out of work, the main priority is to focus on your job search. Having a specific plan allows you to budget time for other things, such as a short vacation or taking on a new project.

Make a short list of activities you’ll do as part of your job search every day or several days per week. Tie these activities to clear, quantifiable objectives, like 5 phone interviews in a month. Next, try to estimate the number of hours you’ll spend going through job boards, networking, and responding to recruiters to achieve those objectives. Block off that time on your calendar and stick to your schedule. Once you have a plan mapped out, you can allocate the remaining time to other tasks that are important to you.

Try following this routine for a few weeks and then evaluate your progress. Are you getting enough done during the time that you’ve devoted toward finding a new job? You might need to refine your schedule depending on the results.

2. Identify short-term deliverables.

Who can benefit from your skills? Will organizations see measurable results if you work with them for one month part-time? Depending on what you have to offer, you might be able to donate some of your time to help a cause that you support.

For example, if you can design a website, you might be able to re-do the landing page for a local food bank or animal shelter. If you’re a programmer, you could upgrade a website to improve its UX or overall functionality. If you work in PR, you can re-do the website’s copy. If you have accounting skills, you can help a small business or charity re-do its billing or receivables systems.

All these actions can be used to build your portfolio, and you can list those experiences on your resume if you want to fill periods of unemployment. Plus, these short-term projects can be personally rewarding: Altruism is tied to happiness and emotional well-being. It’s a great way to recalibrate during your time off from work.

3. Find opportunities through family and friends.

Do you have a brother with a small business or an aunt who works at the public library? What is your best college buddy doing?

When you’re looking for meaningful ways to spend your time, turn to your friends and family. Let a few close individuals know that you’re changing careers—and in the meantime, you’re happy to help them out. Set clear boundaries and make it sound like a limited-time-only opportunity. Friends and family are more likely to accept your offer before an outside organization has time to vet your experiences and agree to terms. But you need to be careful about how you frame the proposal. Don’t make the collaboration sound too self-serving. Explain that you want to help and finally have the time to be more involved.

Once you start a project, make sure you can stick around to finish it. Keep your goals short-term so you have flexibility if you receive an offer.

4. Move on to your professional network.

If you don’t find any valuable leads from your friends and family, contact people in your professional network. Explain what services you can provide and let people know that you’re available part-time for short projects. If you’re interested in a specific organization or role, do some research. Look for signs that they need help, like a lackluster website, and then offer your assistance.

You’re more likely to get a response if you contact an individual directly. Check the board of directors webpage to see if you know anyone who steers the organization. If you know someone on the board or another affiliate in the organization, ask those contacts to streamline the process.

When you submit a project proposal, be specific about what you’re willing to offer for free, or what services you can provide at a steep discount. If you want to be able to use the organization for a reference or testimonial, ask them if they’re receptive to that idea before you start working.

5. Contact your favorite local businesses.

gap in work historyConsider the local businesses you patronize. They might be thrilled to have your expertise, and could even offer to trade goods or services for your time. Restaurants can almost always use IT or marketing help. You can also look for consumer service providers, such as landscape, electrical, plumbing, painting, and construction companies. Many of these small- and medium-size businesses have surprisingly large annual revenues, but the owners are hands-on and prefer to handle administrative tasks themselves. If you can operate in a part-time or consulting basis, you might be able to refer to those experiences on your resume or during an interview.

6. Take projects that matter.

Will a recruiter care that you created a brochure for a local restaurant? Probably not. So if it’s possible, look for more substantive projects that will help you demonstrate your ability to get results for a company. Did you create a broad-ranging social media campaign for a multi-location restaurant that increased its sales by 15%? Did you implement functionality and SEO best practices to a nonprofit website that increased traffic by 40%, resulting in an extra $20,000 in donations that month?

These are the types of “big picture” projects you should look for. Make sure to track your efforts and attach specific metrics to your performance. You might need to coordinate with the business owner to see the impact your work has on their business.

7. Improve your job skills.

When you’re out of work, you have the time to attend professional seminars, workshops, lunch-and-learns, trade shows, webinars, and conferences. You can also complete continuing education credits to maintain certifications—or become certified in something new.

In some cases, getting six months of continuing education on your resume is more valuable to a potential employer than spending that time in a job where you aren’t advancing your skills.

8. Get on a professional committee.

If you belong to a professional society or trade association, now is the time to volunteer to join a committee. Committee positions often lead to committee chair positions, then a spot on the board of directors. Board service is an almost mandatory requirement to make it to the C-suite of a large company.

9. Talk to your accountant.

If you work with a CPA or tax accountant, ask if you can qualify for tax benefits if you do work pro bono. You won’t be able to write off the hours you donate to a nonprofit, but you might be able to write off car mileage or some home office expenses. Charging a business or nonprofit a small fee for your services will strengthen your ability to write off business-related expenses.

10. Don’t wait too long.

Don’t assume that you’ll land a new job in four to six weeks. This short-sighted thinking can make it easy to procrastinate. It’s better to start working right away to fill the gaps in your employment history, especially since it could take time to partner with a nonprofit or outside organization before you launch a new project. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

Stay Active During Periods of Unemployment

If you’re applying for jobs and aren’t currently employed, an interviewer is likely to ask how you spend your time. Be ready to impress them with an answer that shows you take your profession seriously. In many cases, you won’t need to explain that you worked for free or at a discounted rate. Even when you’re between jobs, you can position yourself as a consultant or contractor, as long as you can point to specific projects that you’re working on.

For help during a career transition, learn more about Ivy Exec’s job search services.


About the Author

Steve Milano's first job out of grad school required him to sit in front of piles of C-suite resumes, sifting through candidates applying for key positions with large corporations. Since that time, Steve has hired, trained, and managed employees and contractors in a variety of industries and professions. He has written hundreds of career articles for websites across the internet. Steve has been an executive director, VP of marketing, chief operating officer, publisher, division director, small-business consultant, and board member for corporate and nonprofit businesses.