Be ready to explain employment gaps

Diane Stafford
Kansas City Star

The national job market is approaching what many economists consider “full employment.” Many company hirers say they are encountering the “warm body syndrome,” in which they have to hire candidates who show up rather than good candidates they’d prefer.

If you’ve been out of work for a stretch — say half a year or more — it’s just about past time for you to have returned to the job market. To be clear: This isn’t about returning to the pay or job quality of what you had before. That job may not be available. But it’s better to have some job, any job, on your resume than an extended gap.

The Five O’Clock Club, a resource organization for job hunters, recently posted concise guidelines for getting back into the employment ranks after a long break. Paraphrasing the tips:

■Don’t assume you can sneak a long job gap past recruiters or interviewers. If possible, include a brief explanation — layoff, sabbatical, family care, attempt to start your own business, etc. — in a cover letter. Then prepare to go into further detail in an interview.

■Be honest. The real reason you haven’t been working may be less hurtful than a lie, partly because a lie might be discovered in a background check. Honesty also reflects good character. You also may be able to work in some human interest stories that show how you’re a caring or reliable person; most employers want “people people” in their work environments.

■Be positive. It may be hard to put a good spin on the work gap if you’ve been lazy or unwilling to take a job you considered beneath you. But you need to try to shape opinion in your favor. To be sure, gaps such as raising children or caring for ill family members are easier to explain.

■Tell how you continued to use your skills. Ideally, you can talk about volunteering, freelancing or educational advancement. Prospective employers will see those as indications of your energy or your commitment to your trade.

■Explain that you stayed current. Employers want people to hit the job running, and they’re worried that you might have lost computer skills. It will help if you’ve kept active in a professional or trade association or if you can honestly talk about staying connected by reading industry periodicals or blogs.

The bits of advice may be frustrating to job hunters who have done their best to regain employment and have still come up empty. It’s completely understandable for workers to prolong job searches because they’re not willing to settle for less than they had before. But sometimes reality intrudes.

The job market of 2015, and probably 2016, although much improved, isn’t the same as before. Despite statistical job market health, the full-time, benefits- and pension-provided employment of years past is far rarer these days. The ranks of self-employed people testify to that. But now is as good a time as any to attempt re-entry to payroll employment.