The pandemic hit women, especially caregivers, hard. An estimated two million women opted out of the workforce, wiping away all of the gains achieved in the decades before the pandemic. The good news is that women are gaining ground quickly, with the number of women participating in the labor market as of April 2023 reaching 57.3%. Participation is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Yet surveys show that returning to work is harder for women, especially older women, and women of color, who face tougher scrutiny and additional barriers to successful employment.
How should you present a career break on your resume? Chances are you’ve gotten a lot of mixed feedback on this question, depending on who you ask. At FlexProfessionals, at least 40% of our talent pool are professionals returning to work after extended career breaks for caregiving purposes. We’re talking gaps of 5, 10, and 15+ years. We regularly place this extraordinary talent pool into part-time and full-time flexible roles at amazing companies. When it comes to resumes for re-entry professionals, we know what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Here are our top resume tips for returners. And, yes, they may conflict with what you’ve heard from others.
The Only Career Break That Matters
The only career break that matters is the one you have now, and a small gap due to the pandemic is not a big deal. Job searching can take a toll on our confidence. One side effect of this is that we obsess over even the tiniest of gaps on our resumes. Let’s start by giving this topic some perspective. Most employers only care about the gap you have right now. They don’t care so much about prior gaps, and nor should you. Given the wealth of news articles and social media on the subject, employers are fully aware that the pandemic took a toll on caregivers. Employers should be understanding of a career break due to, and even extending beyond, the pandemic.
What if your career break began long before the pandemic? Project confidence about your decision to leave the workforce, and don’t let your gap derail you from dusting off your resume and going public with your job search. The good news is once you land that first job after a career break, the gap disappears forever.
Don’t Include Your Career Break in the Professional Experience Section
Some people treat their career break as if it were a job and include it in the Professional Experience section of their resume. They may give themselves a fancy job title like “Chief of Operations, Murphy Household” and/or provide too many personal details such as “took 10 years off to raise four children.” I’ve seen a lot of career coaches, life coaches, parenting advocates, and others supporting women and caregivers suggest this approach, like this article written for a national job website. But these well-intended and valued professionals are not in a position to hire you.
I will be the first to tell you that being a stay-at-home mom was the hardest and most rewarding job I’ve ever had, but I still don’t believe this experience belongs in the Professional Experience section of a resume. Why? Because you don’t know who is going to read your resume. A younger professional who is not a parent yet? Someone who did not have the luxury of staying home or who has chosen a different, equally rewarding path? The bottom line is that hiring managers are not going to hire you because of your career break. Keep the experience section to paid professional experience, or even unpaid professional experience, if significant. There are better ways (see below) of owning your gap than by calling attention to it in the Professional Experience section of your resume.
Do Express an Eagerness and Readiness to Return
While we don’t recommend that you treat your stay-at-home experience as a job on your resume, it is perfectly acceptable, and often effective, to indicate an eagerness to return to work after a career break. This should be a short, unapologetic, and positive statement in the Summary/Profile section at the top of your resume. Again, do not specify the length of the career break or give personal details as to why. The focus, rather, should be on your readiness to return and the skills you bring to the table. This allows the reader (likely the hiring manager) to quickly understand your career story, reducing the odds that your resume will land in the “NO” pile. Here are some Summary/Profile examples to get you started.
Include a Volunteer or Community Leadership Experience Section
This is another great way to positively explain your career gap. For many caregivers with extended career breaks, this section is critical because it shows that you have kept your skills sharp. For some, a simple listing on your resume – your volunteer job title, organization name, and time period of involvement – is the best approach. If using this approach, don’t include a laundry list of everything (recess duty, lunch monitor) you’ve done. When you do this, you dilute the good stuff. Instead, highlight leadership roles and other roles where you have tangible accomplishments that you can speak to and where you used skills that you want to use in the future.
You can also try combining volunteer roles for greater impact. For others, your volunteer work has inspired a new career direction. In this case, you may want to treat your most substantive volunteer roles similar to how you’d present a job in the Professional Experience section of your resume, with accomplishment bullets showing the impact of your work. Regardless of how this section of your resume looks, be sure that what you have included adds value to your career story and is work that is relevant to what you want to do next.
Highlight Recently Acquired Skills
It is essential to highlight recently acquired technical skills, certifications, or education relevant to what you want to do. This is another great way to show that you’ve kept your skills sharp during a career break. How this looks on your resume depends on your career goals, the nature of the job you are targeting, and your level of proficiency. For example, if you have a technical background and want to re-enter the workforce in a more technical capacity, you will want to highlight your proficiency in current programming languages, mastery of commonly used analytical tools, or recent education or technical certifications at the top of your resume. You may include these in your Summary/Profile section, add them as bulleted items immediately below, or create a new section altogether to really make them pop.
If you are entering the workforce in a non-technical role or without a specialization, employers will expect that you have basic proficiency in work productivity tools like MS Office Suite and Google Workplace as well as calendar, file management, and collaboration tools. Include these on your resume. When I write resumes for clients without technical specializations, I often list these skills horizontally in simple form across the page as part of a section titled “Education and Technical Skills.” This section usually goes towards the bottom of your resume as you age.
Highlight Your Top Skills
Highlight your top skills, including those soft skills employers love that you’ve honed while on a career break. But how do you do this? By updating your resume, becoming intimate with the details, and focusing on the most relevant successes, accomplishments, and results regardless of how long ago they occurred or if they were paid or unpaid. Quantify as much as possible, or at least identify the impact or benefit of your work on others – clients, customers, internal teams, students, vendors, etc. Your resume should be concise, with only substance. Think of your resume as a reflection of the top skills you have and want to use in the future, rather than a laundry list of past job duties. Check out these top skills for resumes for inspiration.
Don’t Downplay a Current Job
Don’t downplay a current job because it’s not the perfect job. You would be surprised at the number of job seekers who interview with us who self-identify as someone with a career gap, even though they are working in some capacity and utilizing transferable skills. Examples include stay-at-home moms running the operations of a family-owned small business or doing the bookkeeping or digital marketing for a friend’s business. Job seekers often downplay this current and relevant experience on their resumes because the work is done on a part-time basis, is not steady, or is not exactly what they want to do. If you downplay this work on your resume, you will allow your potential employer to do the same. You will weed yourself out of an opportunity that might be a great fit for you. Instead, highlight the transferable skills and related accomplishments on your resume. If you do this using strong action verbs, you will be steps closer to securing a better job.
Consider a One-Page Resume
If you’ve experienced an extended career break, consider a one-page resume. Based on our experience reviewing or writing thousands of resumes for returners, there should be an inverse relationship between the length of your break and the length of your resume. Some job seekers with extended career breaks worry so much about their gaps that they overcompensate by adding too much filler to their resumes. Stick to your strongest skills, with accomplishments to back them up. Highlight what differentiates you from another job seeker with similar skills. Then stop. You’d be surprised at how much more impactful this approach is. Very few hiring managers read past the first page anyway! Here is a Sample Career Re-Entry Resume.
Break the Rules
Break the rules, because resume writing is an art, not a science! It’s ok, for example, to include a job from 15 years ago, as long as it is relevant to what you want to do next. It’s okay to have a Volunteer or Community Service section that is more robust than your Professional Experience section. It is okay to put recent technical skills obtained at the top of your resume, even though your education typically goes toward the bottom as you age. You can rearrange the order of, rename, or delete some section headings to make them work for you. Get creative, but make sure your resume is authentic and error-free with consistent formatting. Use this formatting and editing tip sheet for quick reference.
Returners remain an amazing untapped talent pool, and our business success is proof that employers love the skills, experience, and accomplishments you bring to the workplace! Click here for more tips on how to own your gap and re-enter the workforce with confidence!
Sheila Murphy is Co-Founder of FlexProfessionals, a firm that matches experienced professionals seeking meaningful, part-time employment with growing businesses in need of top talent. Featured on The Today Show, Sheila is a career re-entry expert, work flexibility advocate, and seasoned speaker/trainer on a variety of job search and career development topics.