The impact of the pandemic on careers and jobs has been massive. According to the International Labour Organization, as many as 114 million jobs were lost in 2020. In addition, the reduction of working hours was found to be equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs. The impact on the labor force has been disproportionate, and in the United States alone, the women’s labor-force participation rate has dropped to just 57%, the lowest since 1988. Thousands, if not millions, are now trying to re-enter the job market after a career gap.
For someone who is attempting to re-enter the workforce now after a career gap — possibly one that wasn't by choice — the prospect of explaining the employment gap to a panel of interviewers could be an embarrassing and daunting one. It is also not surprising to find friends and family dishing out advice like, "Whatever you do, secure a job offer before you leave this one, or else you'll have a hard time explaining a career gap." Advice as such further reinforces the mindset that having a career gap is like having a demerit point on your record, so the discomfort is understandable.
I have worked with clients who had career gaps of varying length, and I often notice that with the steps illustrated below, it takes them little effort to change their uneasiness into a calm, quiet confidence.
Here are four ways to help you bounce back from a career gap with grace and class.
1. Clarify what you really think about your career gap
From my experience, what you think of the career gap often matters more than what the hiring manager thinks. When my clients themselves are uneasy about the discussion, they project that discomfort to the audience, and it might be described as awkward, tentative or even guilty. Most interviewers can pick up on that energy; as a person who has been on many interview panels, I can attest to that. When we dove deeper into what was behind the emotions in my clients, we realized that the source was a lack of acceptance of their employment gap.
Some clients did experience emotions like resentment (when a choice was not given to them), anger or self-doubt— all of which need to be processed, made peace with and then set aside. For the majority of my clients, once they come to terms with their career gap, they are able to speak about the employment gap easily and with confidence.
2. Practice your response
You can expect interviewers to be curious. They might ask an open-ended question, and you need to practice your response until it "rolls off your tongue." You might be tempted to divulge too many details, but before you do that, consider what is valuable to the interviewers (and to you). You definitely want to maintain a certain level of honesty, but keep it to the point so you can move on to discuss other subjects — like why you make a great candidate for the role.
3. Focus on the learning you have gained during the gap
Life does happen to people from time to time, and jobseekers can help themselves by accepting responsibility for it— and handling it with maturity during the interview.
The interview panel might not be very keen to hear how life was mundane and dreary, so steer the conversation towards the learning that you've gained over the course of the months or years of your gap. This is also the perfect opportunity for you to showcase why you make a great candidate for the job.
4. Win the interviewers over with your enthusiasm for the future
You can safely trust that you made the cut for technical skills and prior experience should you be invited to an interview. You need to then demonstrate that you have the right attitude or soft skills to contribute to the organization. Make sure that your responses show that you are eager to get back into the workforce.
One way to describe your career gap is to use the metaphor of "seasons in life." Given that the earlier season has now passed, it's time for you to begin another wonderful season, where you are fully excited to contribute to the organization.
A recent research conducted by McKinsey found that there are 56 DELTAs (a combination of skills and attitudes) that will help citizens thrive in the future of work. The research went on to identify the top three DELTAs, where proficiencies in them served as predictors for better employment, income and job satisfaction. "Self-confidence" and "coping with uncertainty" surfaced more than once.
As you look to the future of your career, consider how you can show up at the interview and project an image of self-confidence. You might even be able to leverage your employment gap as proof of your ability to "cope with uncertainty."