Dealing with résumé gaps

These past few years have been tough on workers, a fact that becomes abundantly clear when you read a pile of random résumés — as recruiters and employers often do.

Where they used to encounter nearly identical documents, with each job leading to another in an upward progression, employers are now faced with patchwork quilts on paper, filled with gaps in employment, unrelated jobs, and switchbacks between high- and low-skill positions that would make an Alpine skier dizzy.

Recruiters don’t help when they say, “We prefer a chronological résumé; please show your work history clearly.”

If you can stop worrying about how a particular individual will react to your document and think instead about the story you want to tell, you’ll find it easier to navigate the pitfalls of your work history.

You’ll also find that the resulting document is more powerful and interesting than the traditional format. Since most people are hired through personal contact and not through job boards or recruiters, there’s a certain logic to shaping your résumé for friendly eyes rather than the 10-second scan we’re told to expect for posted positions.

The following tips will help you put the best foot forward with your résumé.

1. Use a headline. Whether the headline is job specific (“Technical Sales Professional with product management experience”) or personal (“Reliable and resourceful; a problem-solver who values confidentiality and loyalty”), your goal is to control the reader’s focus from the first line of the document.

2. Make good use of “alternative” résumé categories. Summaries and Qualifications sections earn their placement near the top of the page because they introduce the reader to the candidate’s best qualities. Other categories near the top might include Key Projects, Notable Achievements, ______ Strengths (fill in the blank with the relevant field), and even Personal Qualities.

3. Present your work history favorably. If you have a disjointed work history, strategy is required. One solution involves “clustering.” This helps with short-term jobs, contract or temporary positions, and gaps in employment that aren’t too extensive (a few months, as opposed to several years).

To make a cluster, put similar positions into a single job description. For example, if you’ve had several temporary accounting positions since 2008, you could write, “Accountant, temporary and contract roles, 2008-present. Clients and workplaces have included (short list), with responsibilities ranging from full-charge bookkeeping to financial analysis and reporting. Requires a depth of accounting knowledge and the ability to adapt quickly to a variety of workplaces and personalities.”

4. Include your non-employment experience. Candidates who have been out of the workplace for several years might build a “job description” for an intensive volunteer activity, a part-time self-employment gig, or even a school program. Presuming this experience is the most recent, it would go first in a category labeled simply “Experience,” which also would include past jobs. If the position was voluntary, say so.

5. Monkey with the dates. Using only the years, rather than months, will downplay some gaps. When you want to keep an older job in the lineup, consider writing “10+ years” (instead of 1977-91, for example).

6. Replenish your experience.

Obviously getting re-employed is the ideal. But while you’re trying to make that happen, take on a part-time job, an internship, self-employment gigs or anything else that will demonstrate that you’re still in the game. In most cases, an unrelated position that is current (put it at the end under “Current Work”) will be seen more favorably than an unexplained gap since your last position.

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Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.