There’s no question about it.  Most employers today have a “perfect picture” in mind of the ideal candidate they’d like to hire for most positions.  This individual not only brings to the table perfect educational credentials and spot-on relevant experience, but also boasts a career path characterized by an unbroken string of progressively-upward employment roles from the moment they initially entered the workforce.

Needless to say, this isn’t most people.  In the real world, especially of late, you’ll find tons of amazingly talented individuals who have various gaps in their employment history, whether through conscious choice or simply based on the turbulence of the economy.  Recently, I’ve worked with several such cases, including some fairly “extreme” examples where I’ve assisted clients who have been out of the workforce for over 10 years due to medical reasons, an unsustainable early retirement decision, or the choice to put their career on hold to raise children.

What these clients always want to know, of course, is how they should address this issue on their resume.  Should they mention the “gap” in their employment history or leave it out, hoping it won’t get noticed?  Should they try a functional (skills-based) format, as some experts suggest?  Or should they just tackle the issue head-on, explain the situation in detail, and hope that employers can see past it?

It’s one of the trickiest issues we’re facing in the job market today, I believe, and you’ll find a fair amount of disagreement on how to tackle this issue out there, if you look around.  For starters, before I weigh in with my own thoughts, I’d recommend you peruse the following set of discussion threads on LinkedIn’s “Answers” page:

How do you address gaps in your work history?
What are your thoughts on employment gaps on resumes?
How to explain a 3-year resume sabbatical?
How do you fill the gaps on your resume?
What is the best way to explain a sabbatical on your resume and LinkedIn profile?
How would a hiring manager or recruiter view a job seeker who included caregiving duties for a relative on his/her resume?

Here are a few of my favorite snippets from the above discussions:

“I am a corporate recruiter and view thousands of resumes. There are no good ways to ‘hide’ employment gaps. Chronological resumes are the norm and functional resumes are like a neon sign telling me to look for employment gaps. If they are there,…I will find them.”

“If I saw an unexplained five-year gap in a resume, I’d probably assume it was time spent in prison.”

“Tell the truth! Be honest about what you’ve done and who you are. The company that can appreciate and respect that is the right place to be! To convey anything else would lead to them eventually finding out the ‘truth’ and the perception may be that you were not honest during the interview process. Not a great way to start off a new relationship!”

“Here’s how I handled my own sabbatical on my resume: May 2005 to December 2008: Spent two-and-a-half years discovering Australia. And myself.”

“I certainly believe that in the current job market, a gap should be pretty understandable — but I don’t think it’s prudent to assume generosity of spirit if you’re a job seeker.  Maybe the person reading the resume is incredibly sympathetic and compassionate.  Or maybe not.  Therefore, I think it behooves job seekers to mitigate that kind of gap.  Perhaps it was a personal sabbatical.  Maybe the candidate took time off to study for a certification, like a PMP.  Or, like some people suggest, volunteering can certainly serve a useful role here, esp. if one is actually using one’s professional skills and keeping them sharp.”

“I think the biggest reason we hear about ‘gaps’ being a problem is that we’ve been socially conditioned to believe that employment gaps are a bad thing.  Sure a gap may raise some questions, and the questions should be asked, however diminishing someone’s qualifications just because of a gap can be counterproductive.”

“It’s not gaps that are the concern.  Clearly you were doing something.  It’s just a question of what?”

Again, as you can see, there are many different points of view on the subject.  The general consensus, however, seems to be that job applicants SHOULD mention and explain any significant gaps in their work history as part of their resume presentation.  This being said, I still think a huge assumption (and lots of wishful thinking) is in play with many of these comments.  Many people seem to automatically assume that the individuals facing this issue have been devoting these career breaks to productive professional activities like taking classes, sharpening their skills, working in relevant volunteer roles, and the like.  This isn’t always the case.  If somebody stays home to raise a young family or gets sidelined due to a personal or family illness, there isn’t going to be much “grist for the mill” in terms of explaining the gap from a value-added standpoint.

So ultimately, every situation is slightly different, and there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution to this challenging issue.  If you look for one, you’ll likely be disappointed.  But in the spirit of the presidential elections we’re going through, let me at least offer up a “5-point plan” that I think gives some good general guidelines that most people can follow if faced with this situation:

1.  As the masses suggest, bite the bullet and include a specific entry/explanation for any gaps in your work history that have happened within the last 10 years; anything earlier than that probably isn’t worth mentioning and can be safely ignored

2.  For those gaps you decide to call out, give a concise and reasonable explanation for why you were out of the workforce during the time in question, stretching this description as much as possible to include any quasi-professional activities (e.g. self-study, schooling, consulting, volunteer work) you may have engaged in during this period

3.  If you’re dealing with a CURRENT gap, in the sense that you’re between jobs right this moment, get on the ball (per the last quoted comment above) and start filling your days with all sorts of professional development, networking, and educational activities that will demonstrate to employers you’re taking active steps to keep your skills sharp — not sitting around eating bon-bons

4.  Make sure to always include a “current” job on your LinkedIn profile, as well, even if you’re unemployed, since many employers and recruiters screen candidates using such criteria.  See the post I wrote here a while back on how best to approach this aspect of things.

5.  Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if you’ve had some serious breaks in your career history, I’d recommend you manage your expectations and assume that these gaps (however unfairly) are going to be a significant roadblock in terms of generating much interest via resume-driven job applications.  So definitely keep sending out your materials to appropriate want ads, here and there, but hedge your bets by following an interview-generation strategy that relies much more heavily on networking and relationship-building.  While your resume will portray your background in a very one-dimensional light, other human beings will be able to evaluate the “whole you” and advocate your talents directly to people they know, diminishing the gap issue to a greater degree.

Not a foolproof formula, by any means, but hopefully at least gives you some general guideposts to follow if you’re faced with this tricky situation!