IN THIS ARTICLE
- Changing attitudes towards career breaks
- Employers are expanding return-to-work programs
- 3 tips to make the most of a career gap
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Springboard alum Sarah Ganihar is among a growing contingent of tech workers with employment gaps who are benefiting from return-to-work programs. Ganihar worked as a software developer in Bengaluru before moving to the US, where she took a four-year break to raise her child. Now, she’s a few weeks into a new career as a business analyst through Amazon’s Returnship Program, a 16-week paid virtual returnship culminating in a chance to land a full-time role.
“I already have a very good understanding of my role,” said Ganihar. “The team is very supportive in terms of getting me up to speed with the work and setting expectations.”
In June 2021, Amazon announced it would expand its return-to-work initiative by hiring 1,000 returning professionals. More and more tech companies are launching returnship programs, which can help the tech industry mitigate its gender and age diversity problem (the average age for workers in the tech industry is 38, and just 28% of women hold leadership positions).
Already, companies like Hubspot, Intuit, PayPal, IBM, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft offer returnships—temporary internships for re-launchers with the possibility of being hired for a full-time role upon successful completion.
Ganihar says it’s important for people who are switching careers to position their prior experience as an asset instead of fearing it will detract from their new skillset. A former QA analyst, she had ample experience creating user documentation, working directly with customers, and giving technical presentations. She made sure to emphasize this narrative in job interviews after completing the Data Science Career Track at Springboard.
Plenty of mid-career professionals take time off work to raise children, care for elderly parents, recover from an illness, travel, or complete military service. Ganihar advises those with a gap on their resume to apply to return-to-work programs and work with a career coach.
“My career coach at Springboard helped me develop a story that I could tell during interviews that emphasized my skills as a business analyst rather than a software developer,” she said. “She was constantly motivating me to just keep going and reassuring me that there was an opportunity waiting for me.”
Changing attitudes towards career breaks
Companies are reforming their attitudes towards hiring candidates with employment gaps out of sheer economic necessity. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a gap of six months could be considered ruinous. However, after nine million US workers lost their jobs, one in four people ditched their employers in what economists billed the Great Resignation, and labor shortages reached an all-time high, workers gained the upper hand, forcing employers to rethink outdated hiring practices.
The Pew Research Center reports that in the first year of the pandemic, a net 2.4 million women and 1.8 million men left the labor force, which means they were either not working or actively looking for work.
LinkedIn even introduced a new feature enabling users to add new job titles like “stay-at-home dad” and other caretaker titles in response to a viral Medium post by writer Heather Bolen, which called out the social networking platform for failing to provide people with options to address parental leave, sick leave, bereavement leave, a sabbatical, gap year, or any other major life event that might pull someone away from paid work.
“The COVID crisis has changed the way employers look at gaps in resumes for a few reasons, including the new understanding that life can interrupt a career,” said Stacie Haller, a career counselor at Resume Builder. “What employers want are engaged, enthusiastic candidates, so addressing the candidates’ activities during the gap can give employers an opportunity to explore more about the candidate.”
A survey by jobs site Monster last fall found that 49% of 400 U.S. recruiters believed résumé gaps had become acceptable rather than a red flag.
Just how much time off can one get away with? Employers are generally willing to interview people with a career gap for as long as two years, according to a recent study by ResumeGo. Some 9.8% of applicants with two-year gaps on their resumes were contacted by employers for follow-up interviews—only slightly lower than the 11.3% average response rate for applicants with no career gaps. Only 4.6% of resumes showing a gap of three years elicited a response, however.
In fact, another survey of 1,500 recruiters and hiring managers found that candidates who have been unemployed long-term (two or more years) are harder to place than someone with a non-felony criminal record.
While longer career gaps still appear to be stigmatized, things are looking up for those with gaps of two years or less. Alongside a tight labor market is a cultural shift toward greater acceptance of “nontraditional” career paths and the normalization of employment gaps. Some 76% of US workers ages 24-38 expect to take career breaks of longer than a month. With social security funds projected to run out by 2034, millennials anticipate having to work longer than previous generations, thereby necessitating periodic breaks to recuperate mentally, spend time with family, or seek further education.
According to research by ManpowerGroup, 57% of male and 74% of female millennials anticipate taking a career break for childcare, eldercare, or to support a partner in a job—a much higher rate than was true for prior generations.
What’s more, the skills employers seek are changing so quickly that people who take a career break for education or retraining are becoming increasingly attractive. Taking time off to retrain is seen as a sign of adaptability.
“When candidates invest in upskilling, that’s a testament to their grit, hustle, and determination,” said Nadeja Adams, senior account executive of employer partnerships at Springboard.”
Employers are expanding return-to-work programs
Many employers are launching or growing return-to-work programs to attract professionals who voluntarily or involuntarily withdrew from the labor force during the pandemic. Currently, nearly 110 US-based companies offer return-to-work programs, with some of the longest-running programs offered in the finance industry—namely, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Credit Suisse. In April, Grubhub launched its first returnship program, a 16-week paid virtual returnship for professionals with a career gap of at least two years.
While reentry programs have strict eligibility requirements, some companies are loosening them in order to attract more applicants. IBM, Oracle, Mastercard, Amazon, and TD Bank have lowered the minimum number of years of a career break from two years to one year. For many returnships, having a part-time job disqualifies a candidate. Not so at Amazon and Ford, which allow “underemployed” workers to apply. The Amazon Returnship even offers coaching and mentoring, and the average “returner” has been out of the workforce for six years. Amazon even offers a dedicated “Next Chapter” Returnship program with Audible, an 18-week paid full-time internship for professionals who have at least five years of professional experience.
Meanwhile, the reentry program at Ford lasts six months, offering assignments in product development, IT, and manufacturing. According to iRelaunch, a career reentry consulting company, 40% of Fortune 50 employers offer their own return-to-work programs. However, when it comes to Fortune 500s, this number shrinks to less than 10%.
The goal of dedicated reentry programs is to put those with an employment gap on equal footing with peers who are currently in the workforce and possess equivalent skills.
Unsurprisingly, the top beneficiaries of return-to-work programs are former stay-at-home moms who paused their careers to raise their children.
“Not only is there a spike in these return-to-work programs, but there are intermediaries that serve as the middleman between these programs and the candidates,” said Adams. “We find the quickest way is to basically direct candidates to these platforms, which host info sessions and virtual events, so they can meet the team.”
Third-party platforms like Path Forward, iRelaunch, Power to Fly, reacHIRE partner with companies to launch or expand return-to-work programs. Acting as part staffing agency, part career coaching provider, these companies source candidates, provide coaching and mentorship, and serve as the liaison between companies and applicants. For re-launchers who have been applying to jobs the “traditional” way with no callbacks to show for it, these platforms can be a good place to start.
After signing up to a platform, candidates can receive job alerts for returnship programs, attend events featuring recruiters and hiring partners, and gain access to dedicated career development content. Companies like Ellevate, Women Back to Work, The Mom Project, and The Second Shift specialize in helping stay-at-home moms reboot their careers.
After being out of full-time work for nearly three years, Springboard alum Mengqin (Cassie) Gong landed a role as a data scientist on the product team at Facebook. The Facebook Return to Work Program is a 16-week immersive training and mentorship program designed for people who have been away from work for two years or longer. At the end of the program, the top performers will be considered for a full-time position at Facebook.
As she was completing Springboard’s Data Science Career Track, Gong’s career coach at Springboard pushed her to apply—and she, along with 16 other Springboard students, submitted applications for the role. Gong recently started working as an analyst on the Whatsapp team (Facebook acquired the instant messaging app in 2014). While taking time off full-time work to care for her family, Cassie, who has a history of working with nonprofits, continued doing part-time data analytics work for the Boys & Girls Club of the Peninsula.
“You can start by taking a course like those offered at Springboard and looking for part-time or freelance jobs,” said Gong. “These types of jobs have a slightly lower bar than full-time, permanent positions.”
Currently, the Employer Partnerships team at Springboard is working closely with return-to-work platforms like Path Forward as well as Facebook and Amazon to assist students with an employment gap in the job search process.
Earlier this month, Springboard finalized a partnership with Power To Fly, a diversity recruiting and retention platform that connects underrepresented talent to roles in the tech industry. When students complete a course at Springboard, they fill out an onboarding form for job placements, where they upload a resume and add their LinkedIn profile. Recently, Springboard added a field that enables students to self-report if they have been out of the workforce for a certain period of time.
“We have specifically segmented candidates that are returning to work so they can hopefully stand out in the job market, and they’re not competing against others to get their foot in the door,” explained Adams.
3 tips to make the most of a career gap
Candidates with employment gaps are commonly told to address their time off head-on so prospective employers don’t make assumptions that could rule them out. While the stigma of a career break is wearing off employers may still perceive candidates who have been unemployed long-term as a riskier bet.
“If a candidate had really compelling experience beforehand, that could trump the gap,” said Patty Kwok, head of career services at Springboard. “It also depends on what you were doing during the gap. Were you in school? Were you learning other things? There’s definitely a big emphasis on a growth mindset in a lot of companies. If you know that’s a big company value, you should emphasize that when talking about your career gap.”
Tip 1: Gain a new skill
Candidates moving from one technical role to another might have an easier time landing a job after a career break—as long as they can prove that their skills are up-to-date through personal projects, further education, or part-time work—but others might take advantage of a break to switch careers.
MOOCs, online courses, and bootcamps have made it easier than ever for those with an employment gap to keep up with the ever-evolving skills employers demand. Seventy percent of executives say their employees lack tech and computer skills, which puts those who have completed a bootcamp at an advantage when it comes to the digital skills gap.
“If you’ve been out of work and taking classes to acquire new skills along with your job search, you show prospective employers you are serious about your return and dedicated to continuing and growing your career,” said Haller.
When Springboard alum Reagan Tatsch was laid off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he decided to pivot from marketing operations to data analytics. Tatsch expected to start in an entry-level role for his first data analytics job and take a significant pay cut, but thanks to his years of leadership experience in marketing operations, he was able to leverage his transferable skills to land the role of team lead. It wasn’t long before he gained the title of manager.
“These companies knew my data skills were entry-level, but it didn’t matter because I had a lot of leadership experience, and that’s what they were interested in,” said Tatsch, data operations manager at ISS.
While a bootcamp or advanced degree isn’t for everyone, there are other ways to stay up-to-date with your industry, such as going on informational interviews, attending virtual events, or finding a mentor.
“There are so many great platforms for unconventional job seekers,” said Adams. ‘Many of them host events specifically for career connectors, such as how to navigate a career change, lift up your voice at work, how to upskill, or break into the tech industry as a woman.”
Tip 2: Address the gap, but don’t dwell on it
Bear in mind that a whopping 99% of Fortune 500 companies (and 75% of all US employers) use an applicant tracking system to screen, sort, and manage job applicants, according to a recent report from Harvard Business School and Accenture. An inflexibly configured ATS could automatically overlook resumes with gaps. Addressing your employment gap starts with your resume. Explain the reason for the gap—whether you were laid off, recovering from an illness, or you were a military spouse who relocated a lot. Mention any professional development opportunities you pursued—certifications earned, courses completed, conferences attended, and any volunteer or contract work.
“A gap due to addressing a family or personal issue can be explained in a sentence or two at the most,” said Haller. “Honesty is always best and since COVID, less explanation is necessary.”
When it comes to your cover letter and general interview approach, don’t be afraid to expand on the soft skills you gained that are unique to your career break, without over-emphasizing how much time you spent out of the workforce.
“I think people with a career gap bring certain life skills that are very transferable to the workplace,” said Kwok. “Raising a child or caring for an elderly parent requires significant skills. Then there are people who take time off to travel and really hone and develop people skills, life skills, and communication skills that are just as important in the workplace.”
While acting as the primary caregiver for his autistic son, Ed Burke, who is enrolled in Springboard’s Cyber Security Career Track, acquired a plethora of time management and interpersonal skills he wouldn’t otherwise have gleaned had he stayed in the job market. From managing his son’s illness and sticking to a highly structured routine—Burke says he’s seen it all. Any job, no matter how challenging, seems to pale in comparison, he says.
“I would challenge anybody to walk in my shoes for a period of time. I’m not trying to praise myself or anything like that, but my child happens to be extremely autistic, which makes it very difficult,” said Burke. “I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles—be it his tantrums, his being up all night, or having people in your house until eight o’clock at night for his therapies and stuff like that, so I’m not afraid to take on a challenge after caring for my son for 10-plus years.”
If you can relate the experience you gained during your employment gap to the role you are applying for, you may wish to list the gap as you would any other job on your resume, including your role and relevant responsibilities. Addressing employment gaps in your resume minimizes the chance of being screened out by an ATS.
Tip 3: Pursue return-to-work opportunities
Sometimes, candidates who apply to return-to-work programs are discouraged from discussing their career gap at all during the interview process. Since candidates are required to have an employment gap of at least one year to qualify in the first place, the reason you took time off is irrelevant; what matters is the skills you bring to the table.
When applying to return-to-work programs, pay close attention to the eligibility criteria. Some programs will only accept applicants who took time off for a specific reason, such as childcare. Most are very strict about the gap duration; for example, if you’ve been unemployed for one year and nine months but the requirements stipulate a minimum of two years, you won’t qualify.
“For some programs, working as an intern or on a part-time or freelance basis could disqualify you,” advises Adams. “Each program has very different requirements—it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It might be better to move certain work experiences to the ‘Projects’ section of your resume, or submit different versions of your resume.”
The interview process for return-to-work programs is much like the interview process for any other job, except that you may or may not be asked about your time off. Once an applicant is accepted into a returnship program, they’ll receive significantly more on-the-job training than a regular employee, with the possibility of mentorship and career coaching. Most company in-house returnship programs give re-launchers the opportunity to land a full-time role at the end of their program.
“The good thing is when it comes to apprenticeships and these talent acquisition programs as a whole, there’s a usually a high conversion rate where candidates land a full-time position, typically around the 90% benchmark,” said Adams. “I wouldn’t go into the role thinking of it as a short-term arrangement.”
Just like college students are advised to treat an internship like a full-time job (or even an ongoing job interview), returnships offer an opportunity to set down roots at a company you admire.
“You have this awesome opportunity to really understand the company culture, how the company functions, how they work,” said Kwok. “The other thing I think is really important is to build your network internally because you want to be able to develop advocates who can vouch for your skills, your experience, and what you can bring to the table at a company.”