Let’s get one thing straight: having a career gap on your resume or CV does not have to be a negative. Life doesn’t stop when you are out of work, and your personal development continues regardless. There are many reasons for having a career gap, which we explore below, but in almost every case the following is true: time out of work can improve your value as an employee. So, let’s take a deep dive into career gaps, how you can turn them into a positive when seeking work, and what to do if you’re thinking of taking a break from employment.
Career gaps are common
Having a gap in employment is a lot more common than you may think. And it is actually becoming increasingly popular to take time out of work voluntarily. Regardless of whether you have made a personal decision to take a career gap or you have had one imposed on you for reasons beyond your control, you are not alone – and there’s no reason to treat it as a big hole that needs to be covered up and explained away.
The economic fallout of today’s unprecedented times means that more people than ever will have career gaps. The events of 2020 have sent a ripple of shock through the jobs market in almost every sector, leaving many people in uncertain career situations through absolutely no fault of their own. And in many cases, the situation is opening up new opportunities.
The bigger picture is that the traditional nonstop, one-track career has been disappearing for a long time. A more fluid approach, in which people dip in and out of a career to make more time for travel, personal development and lifestyle changes, is on the rise. And as the benefits of taking a career gap are being increasingly recognised, the stigmas surrounding them are gradually being lifted.
But what exactly do career gaps entail, and what effect do they have?
If you have a career gap it does not necessarily mean you have halted your career progression. It could mean that you have stepped back from your regular workplace environment to develop in other ways. Employers are increasingly recognising that time away from the traditional path does not simply mean you are stopping and restarting your career.
So, the first step to navigating gaps in your employment is all about mindset. Treat it as a positive. The moment you do this, you give yourself a head start on life’s next big challenge.
Types of career gap
This website primarily focuses on taking a career gap to travel, but of course there are many more reasons that people take a break from work. These are some of the most common:
- Taking a sabbatical for travel or to recharge
- Specific personal development, e.g. volunteering or taking a course
- Having children and raising a family
- Redundancy or dismissal
- Caring responsibilities
Each of these types of career gap brings different challenges, and below we dissect some of the ways to focus on the positive of each.
You might encounter other terminology
Career gaps are often described in other ways. Career break, sabbatical, gap year, mini-retirement – you’ve probably heard some of these before.
While each of these terms has slightly different connotations, in essence they all mean the same thing. A career gap is a period of time spent away from work to pursue other interests or a change of lifestyle.
Explaining a career gap: how to make it a positive
Time away from work gives you an opportunity to build new skills and develop existing attributes. Our article on career skills that travel can help you develop picks out examples that are specific to travel, but many of these can be applied in a variety of other situations.
So, begin by writing down the things you have learned and the ways you have developed personally while away from work. Then, think about how it could give you a competitive advantage for the kind of job you’re seeking or applying for.
For example, has raising children made you more resilient, empathetic and resourceful? And wouldn’t these attributes be of great value in an office or team-working environment?
Here are some examples relevant to the various career gap types listed above:
|Career gap type||Key skills you may have developed|
|Travel sabbatical||Communication, cultural competence, language skills.
Read about how Alisa became a better professional after a travel break helped her to overcome burnout: “The travel career break made me realise how important managing my time and energy was to sustainable career growth and progression”
|Volunteering or specific skill-building||Teamwork, project management, specialist skills.
Read about how Michelle had a positive experience returning to work after volunteering in Costa Rica: “They celebrated my career break and saw it as something that enhanced my CV.”
|Having children / raising a family||Time management, patience, prioritisation.
Research has shown that having children can make you more productive at work.
|Redundancy / dismissal||Adapting to change, re-training in new skills, resilience.
Redundancy is also an opportunity to explore a new career direction, and can even change your life for the better.
|Caring responsibilities||Empathy, introspection, problem-solving.
Various organisations provide support for carers seeking to return to work; here is a success story from the UK.
|Illness||Perspective and prioritisation – you know what’s important!
Many people find that serious illness is a catalyst for career change, for example these three women’s stories of life after cancer.
Don’t shy away from your career gap. Be honest and upfront about it. If you leave gaps unexplained when applying for jobs it can raise suspicions, and if you are unprepared you may be caught out.
Add your career gap to your LinkedIn profile and include the skills you developed while away from work. You can see mine here.
Make it relevant
Tailoring your job applications to each role you apply for vastly improves your chance of success. The same is true when it comes to explaining career gaps. If you’ve undergone personal or professional development while away from work, present it in a way that’s relevant to the role.
For example, after we returned from a year-long travel career break, Lisa landed a job at a major UK charity. During the recruitment process, she focused on how our experiences helped her to improve her networking skills – something that the new position demanded.
If you are currently on a career gap, or you are planning to take one, keep a journal to record your learnings along the way. Our guide to maximising your professional development on a travel career break suggests ways to prepare for this that will work in many scenarios.
How to incorporate a career gap in your resume
The attributes and career skills you have developed while out of work can be the perfect complement to your professional experience. In many cases it’s a great selling point that can give you an invaluable edge over the competition.
You may be tempted to bury any gaps or sabbaticals at the end of your resume in an ‘additional information’ section, or to leave them out altogether. But by doing this you could be missing an opportunity. Including breaks from work in your employment history section will give the document a better flow and tell a clearer story, as long as you make it relevant.
There are always ways to adjust the presentation of your resume to emphasise certain elements of your experience. Focus on the strongest points, but don’t be afraid to fill in the gaps in between.
If your career gap really doesn’t fit the flow of your resume, then alternatively you can address it in your cover letter or personal statement. This option works well if you can demonstrate character development during your break from work that complements the categorical professional experience shown on your resume.
How to answer interview questions about career gaps
If you have gaps between employment in your career, it’s likely to come up in job interviews whether or not you mentioned it in your application.
It’s important to be prepared for this, and to approach it with the same mindset I have described throughout this article. Pick out the positives. Draw upon the skills and attributes you developed while out of work, and relate it to the job role.
You could even preempt the subject by bringing up your career gap in response to other questions. In past job interviews I’ve often been asked to cite examples of when I’ve demonstrated a particular quality, such as “describe a time when you have had to deal with conflict”. The best answers to these questions are not always drawn from a professional setting. Before your interview, think about some examples from your career gap you could draw upon that demonstrate your personal qualities.
If there were any adverse circumstances surrounding your departure from your previous role, then focus on how you reacted positively to that. And if you think the employer has concerns about your commitment, then you can talk about how the time out has given you a chance to reframe your life’s priorities, and that you are now ready and hungry for the next challenge.
A common interview question about career breaks is “what have you done to address gaps in your knowledge while out of work?”, or similar. In this case, explain what you’ve done to stay in touch with trends in the industry during your time out. Brush up on the current issues and challenges before the interview, so you can give some examples.
How to plan a career gap (and prepare for life afterwards)
If you’re reading this and you’re thinking of taking a career gap in future, then you’re in the right place, especially if you aim to use the time to travel while developing professionally.
The first step to taking a career gap is overcoming the preconceptions and making the decision to do it. Once you have cleared that hurdle, you will have a clear focus and you can begin working towards the goal.
Our ultimate guide to taking a travel career break walks through every stage of a travel sabbatical, from the initial decision-making right through to what happens after you return home.
Planning ahead will put you in the best situation to thrive in your career after taking a break. Our survival guide to returning home after travel covers the challenges you may face after taking time out. Also see our strategies for finding a job after travelling the world, which includes a section on planning ahead, and is relevant to rejoining the workforce after any kind of career gap.
To get that tricky conversation started with your boss, read our guide to how to ask for a sabbatical from work.
Will taking a career gap harm my career?
The evidence suggests otherwise. Many people who take extended breaks from work emerge with a refreshed perspective and a new-found purpose in life.
Research highlighted by the Harvard Business Review has shown that organisations benefit when employees take sabbaticals. This is being reflected in the growing number of companies that are opening up to career breaks and implementing policies to encourage them. If you use your time out of work positively, the benefits to your career can be immense.
In 2014, Virgin launched a policy allowing employees to take unlimited holiday. In the UK, the BBC is open to discussing career breaks of three months to three years. There are countless more examples of businesses, large and small, that are open to career break arrangements.
Whatever the reason for it, a career gap is an opportunity. It gives you a chance to take a step back from your current situation and reflect on your overall life outlook, while developing as a person at the same time.
Career gap stories
Our travel career break interview series showcases inspirational people who have used their career gap experience to discover new cultures, develop new personal qualities and transform their lives.
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