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Heather Mosley } SBJ

Employers growing more tolerant of employment gaps

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Employment advisers have long warned job seekers about “the gap.” 

Having an extended period without work history on one’s resume has traditionally been considered a liability, and one that a candidate must be willing to explain to remain viable.

And the longer the period of unemployment, the more that gap begins to look like a chasm.

With large numbers of people dipping out of the workforce during last year’s stay-at-home orders, a lot of resumes now feature a brand-new gap.

The Pew Research Center reports that in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a net 2.4 million women and 1.8 million men left the labor force nationwide, which means they were neither working nor actively looking for work.

Additionally, the U.S. Congressional Research Service reported that in April 2020, the nation’s unemployment rate reached 14.8%, which was the highest rate observed since data collection began in 1948. In May 2021, unemployment stood at 5.8%, which was higher than the February 2020 pre-COVID rate of 3.5%.

Those workers who left the workforce during the pandemic and then sought a return to the office were left to contend with a hole in their employment record – a gap.

With so many workers temporarily bowing out of the labor force, employers are left to consider whether their old ideas about fallow periods in work records still apply.

Celeste Cramer, director of recruitment and retention for CoxHealth, has always had a more tolerant attitude toward the employment gap, especially when applicants are creative in how they present it.

“For me, it doesn’t make me too nervous, especially if they can explain the reason for that gap,” she said.

A common example employers have always seen is parents who have taken a leave of absence from the workforce to raise young children. Even before the pandemic, the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found in 2015 that 39% of caregivers leave their job to care for a loved one. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that women workers especially were impacted by COVID-19, with one in 10 quitting a job due to a pandemic-related reason, and a tenth of all working moms with children under 18 who quit, citing school closures as a reason.

Cramer suggests creativity when applicants describe what they did while unemployed. She said a recent applicant who had become a stay-at-home mom was able to describe her relevant experience in multitasking, financial planning and conflict resolution.

“A lot of what she listed did transfer to what we deal with on a daily basis,” she said.

Another recent applicant explained the relevant experience he gained as a coach of his son’s T-ball team. That experience included managing relationships, public relations and travel. “Employers can appreciate that,” Cramer said.

Cramer has respect for those people who make the difficult decision to follow an unconventional career trajectory.

“It shows that the people who made those decisions are bold,” she said. “They will approach decisions differently than people who are stuck in a rut.”

Brad Eldridge, the general manager of Turners Rock senior living community, recently posted an ad for an administrative position, and he often hires cooks, servers and other hourly workers.

“I look at them a lot more liberally right now,” he said.

In the past, a resume gap would have required a careful explanation. It may not have been disqualifying, Eldridge said, “But it would have been a negative.”

Autumn Ladd, a recruiter with Staffing Plus, was frank in her assessment of the situation employers face: “We’re just at a point where they don’t really have a choice.

“If they want somebody to work, the people who are applying have gaps in their work history,” she said. “If you want your business to continue running, you have to have people there to run it.”

Krystal Ray is human resources manager for KPM CPAs & Advisors. She said her approach to resumes hasn’t changed much, even though the labor shortage has brought some challenges.

“Each resume needs to be reviewed in total,” Ray said. “We understand that gaps occur for a variety of reasons, and many of those directly relate to that person’s ability to be successful in the future.”

Ray stressed that honesty really is the best policy.

“Be prepared to speak to those gaps,” Ray said. “Many times, they’re not an issue.”

Ray suggests that applicants go into an interview knowing what they want to say about their work history. She added that there is no single, set way for professional lives to unfold; nor is there only one way to present a work history in a resume.

Gaps don’t faze Ashley Fick, human resources director at Nothum Food Processing Systems. She’s hired some 60 new employees since December and is still looking to hire 30 more.

“I think there are a lot of things that can go into that. We don’t shy away from calling those applicants,” she said.

Fick said it is important that the applicant’s dormant periods not be times of complete inaction.

“It’s important that the individual was still doing something,” she said. “Taking care of the family is a viable reason for not working – or taking care of personal wellness.”

Extended gaps can become a barrier in highly technical jobs, like some of those at Nothum, Fick said.

“The challenge is skills getting rusty,” she said, noting that’s one reason that a skills assessment is part of the hiring process. “Some of those skills not being up to date might be the biggest hindrance in manufacturing, where so many of the jobs are skills related.”

Sara Coatney, talent acquisition specialist at Guaranty Bank, said today there is undoubtedly a more open and flexible attitude regarding resume interruptions.

“It’s not just an immediate deal-breaker,” Coatney said. “The gaps are so much more prevalent in everybody that we see. I think we’re more open to having a conversation and exploring why the gap is there and what was happening during that time – in taking time to truly get to know the person.”

Coatney added that much has changed in the human resources profession over time, and not only with work interruptions, but with longevity in positions, which used to be seen as reflecting employee loyalty.

“It was expected that you put in your time and stay forever with a company,” Coatney said. “Now, I think that people have higher expectations of their employers. They’ll put in some time, but at a certain point, they’re willing to branch out and try something new.”

She said this is a positive change in the perspectives of both employers and their professionals.

“How many of us have tried something out and discovered that it doesn’t really fulfill us like we thought it would or this isn’t the position I thought it would be? If we stay, we’re not really doing ourselves or the business any favors, because at the end of the day, the disengaged employee can quickly become toxic in the wrong environment,” she said.

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