Closing the gap when it’s been a while since your last job – Twin Cities

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Amy Lindgren

Do you know someone who has been out of work for quite a while? I’m guessing you do. Anecdotally, I’m hearing about folks all the time who stepped off the job track for one reason or another, while the months or years slid by.

There are many reasons for taking a pause, including frustrating job searches, family caretaking, pregnancy, personal health issues and jobs that ended just as the pandemic started, making it hard to jump back in. Indeed, the pandemic alone was a factor for many people, either as the impetus for stepping away or as one of the contributors to a general malaise about returning.

While each person’s gone-from-work story is different, many share a common struggle: It can be difficult to go back.

If you’re the person with the employment gap, you already know that some of the difficulty is psychological or emotional. After a long time away, it can feel overwhelming to imagine working again, much less conducting a job search. There’s also a strategic issue: How do you deal with the gap when connecting with potential employers?

This is one of those cases where solving one problem can help resolve the other problem. If we start by dealing with the gap itself, the feeling of being overwhelmed will likely diminish.

The following steps will help, whether you’re feeling stuck in a loop or just biding your time before returning.

1. Get started with something. It’s blithe to say the best way to get back on a horse is to get back on. But, well… In this case, if you’re not sure about the metaphorical horse, you can start with a pony or even a rocking horse instead.

In non-metaphorical terms? Commit to something that requires structure, whether that’s a weekly volunteer shift, a part-time retail job, or a class that you attend.

The logic is twofold. First and most importantly, you need to dust off the cobwebs, and starting slowly will lessen the re-entry shock. And second, you’ll be glad later to have something more concrete to talk about when employers ask about the gap.

2. Review the reasons for the gap. Do you remember why the gap occurred? Perhaps you finished a training program and then stalled out on the job search. That happened to a lot of people graduating around the pandemic. Or maybe you left to help someone with caretaking and just didn’t go back afterward. You may have been laid off, or gotten burned out, or perhaps you let a short break extend without realizing it was happening.

If you have insight into why you left or stayed out of the workforce, that’s something to build on now. For example, if it was burnout or mental health issues, part of your process for returning could involve support from a therapist or career counselor.

By gathering whatever insight you can, you may be able to avoid triggering the same issues in the next job.

Whatever the answer, here’s the real question: Are you ready now to work? Don’t hold the bar too high — the key word is “ready,” not “comfortable” or “confident.” This is one of those situations where it doesn’t pay to wait for the optimal feelings, since they tend to get more elusive as time goes by.

3. Find a reason to return. Knowing your reason for returning is fundamental to your success. If you’re generally thinking, “I should get back to work,” that may not carry you through the difficult parts of the job search process.

Find your personal motivator and you’ll succeed faster in your reentry process. And once you’ve found it? Dig deeper than a one-word answer. For example, like most people looking for work, you may be motivated by having more money in your pocket. But why? You’ve been getting along without a paycheck for awhile, so what about “money” will be reason enough to overcome the emotional or logistical hurdles that have been holding you back?

You could name a goal salary, and that’s certainly important for job search in general. But now take it further. If you had that amount, how would that change things? It may give you financial freedom, a better retirement or even self-respect. Keep this image front-of-mind and you’ll find it easier to push past the barriers.

4. Figure out how to describe the gap. This is the subject for next week’s column, so come back for some interview and resume tips that will help in communicating with potential employers.

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