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The Question:

What do I write on a résumé where there are gaps between jobs? As of recently, I have a three-year gap. I haven't been studying or volunteering or away on maternity leave or travelling to use as viable reasons. I just wasn't ready to go back to work or to start looking. I had a job at a good company more than 10 years ago, but nothing to focus on more recently. I have been volunteering, but only for a year now, and it's just once a week for two hours. (Can I stretch it to say longer?) Would writing "personal leave" be an option, for the last three years?

The Answer:

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As a career coach, my message to you would be: You have got to work with what you have. There is no way to completely shadow job gaps. There are ways to not draw attention to them, but they cannot be hidden. What is important, however, is how you explain them.

Résumés tend to come in two forms – functional and chronological. If significant employment gaps exist, a functional résumé (sometimes called an accomplishment-based résumé) works best as it draws attention to the skills you bring, rather than your work history. Functional résumés highlight your accomplishments throughout your career and bring to attention what you can do for an employer.

For a functional résumé, there are typically four key areas: profile; skills and accomplishments; work history; and education. For your profile, state in a couple of sentences or bullet points what kind of professional you are, and where your strengths lie. Give the reader a really good snapshot about you, so they understand what you are about if they only read the profile.

Developing your skills and accomplishments part of the résumé takes the most time, but it is the most important part. Select four key skills you have. Make sure they are skills which tell the reader what you can do, such as budgeting, marketing, project management. Stay away from things such as communication, detail oriented, and other competencies that are often confused with skills. Everyone will say they are good at time management, for example. Where these come into the picture is the descriptions of accomplishments.

Under each skill, list two or three accomplishments that illustrate or highlight the skill. This is where you include terms such as problem solving, detail oriented, etc. The accomplishment should say what it was, and why it was important – in about two sentences. This as well as the profile should take up most, if not all, of the first page.

The second page includes your work history and education. For work history, simply include your title, place of employment, dates worked and two or three key responsibilities. Remember, the good stuff is all on the first page – skills and accomplishments. Take it back about 15 years, then after that just list the title, employer and how long you were there. There is no need to explain gaps at this point. Finally, education should list completed credentials and educational institutions, and any relevant courses, conferences and workshops. Dates are not necessary, as it does not matter when you completed the program.

Finally, once your résumé has landed you an interview, you need to justify the gaps, but only if asked. It is okay to say you wanted to take some time off between roles to consider your strengths and figure out what the next chapter in your life was going to look like. The important thing to remember is to stay positive. Do not say things like "I did not know what I wanted to do." Reframe it by saying you were doing some soul searching to determine your next opportunity. Employers will focus in on your strengths, as long as you portray yourself as strong.

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Eileen Dooley is a certified coach and lead consultant for McRae Inc. in Calgary.

Have a question about careers, labour law or management? Send it to our panel of experts: careerquestion@globeandmail.com Your name and address will be kept confidential.

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