Dear Sam
Samantha Nolan
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What Were You Doing? Explaining the “gap” when returning to work

February 7th, 2011

by Samantha Nolan

Dear Sam: I was a stay-at-home dad—for nearly 5 years—raising my young children while, at the same time, taking care of my wife who was suffering from breast cancer. My wife has since recovered and I have been back at work for 2 years, but still have a large gap in my résumé. Could you give me some advice on how to approach a cover letter to somewhat explain the time I was away? – Steve

Dear Steve: I’m sorry to hear of your wife’s battle with breast cancer but thrilled for you and your family that she is a survivor of the disease. You will want to ensure you are handling the gap in employment appropriately in both your résumé and cover letter. I say this as about 50% of hiring managers say they do not read cover letters; given this statistic, you will want to ensure your bases are covered on both documents, especially for the half of readers who won’t read the explanation on your cover letter.

For your résumé, I’d imagine a combination résumé format would work well for you as this would enable you to pull forward highlights from your experience 2008-present, prior to 2003, and your time out of the workforce. This will hopefully push your 5-year gap in employment to “disappear “between page one and two of your résumé (that would be the goal). In order to make this work, you will really need to develop a strong qualifications summary and equally strong “Highlights” section which will contain most of the “meat” of your résumé. You will end page one with the beginning of your “Professional Experience” section presenting your most recent two years of employment, in full, with responsibilities and select achievements that you did not place in the “Highlights” section. Page two will begin with your pre-stay-at-home-dad experience, again in full, with a nice presentation of your work history and achievements. At the end of the professional experience section, I would create a centered and italicized byline that says something like, “Took a hiatus from the workforce in 2003 to care for wife as she battled a life-threatening disease, simultaneously caring for our young children as our family navigated a time of uncertainty. Once my wife made a full recovery and our children were thriving in school, I returned to my career in 2008 and continued my track record of adding value through significant professional achievement.”

On your cover letter, I would explain something very similar to what you have presented on your résumé, being sure that this note is close to the end of your letter. There is no need to present this—what could be a potential disqualifier—up front on your résumé or cover letter as you have significant professional experience prior to and after this hiatus. I think this gap will be less of an issue—than perhaps you anticipate—as long as it is presented in the strategic manner suggested.

Dear Sam: I lost my job in February 2008. While unemployment is usually not a godsend, in my case it was. I needed 2008 to take care of my father’s estate in New York. I spent the majority of that year traveling back and forth to New York, unable to focus my energy on a job search.

I began a job search in earnest in 2009, but was not able to find anything. In February 2010, I started volunteering at a small employment center as an employment counselor. I have gained valuable experience even though I’m not a paid employee. I am still looking for employment, but continue to volunteer while I do so.

I know that not being employed since 2008 looks bad on paper. Is it appropriate/acceptable to put a volunteer position/responsibilities on the first page of my résumé before my professional experience? If it is, how should I present it? If not, where on my résumé should I place it? – Vanessa

Dear Vanessa: You can absolutely place your volunteer experience on page one of your résumé ahead of your most recent paid professional experience. Most of how a prospective employer views your experience is dictated by how you decide to present it. So, if you give your volunteer experience the space and weight you feel it deserves, it is much more likely to be seen as a position of substance by prospective employers. You can even present your volunteer experience within your professional experience section; just be sure to note that it was a volunteer role—somewhere at the beginning of your description—so that you are not seen as trying to mislead anyone into thinking it was a full-time paid position. Presenting your volunteer experience as such will not only close a gap in employment, but will show recent experience and continued involvement in a professional arena.

View a return-to-work résumé example here

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