How to Address a Break in Employment

So many of us, especially the “trailing spouse”, have a break in our employment for some reason or another. The Foreign Service often gives us the choice of taking a break from our careers or forces us into leaving our chosen profession for a tour (or three or four).

If you have already taken a break from your professional life, for whatever Foreign Service or non-Foreign Service reason, the very first step you have to take is to figure out why you took that break. Maybe you chose to take time off to raise your kids. Maybe you chose to follow your spouse to a country where you weren’t allowed to work. Maybe you did the cost-benefit analysis and realized that taking a job on the local economy or in the Embassy wasn’t worth it in your particular case.

Determine what that reason is. Now, many of you may be phrasing it in an “I had to…” or “My spouse’s job made us…” kind of way. I get that and I know that’s how our conversations often go. But approach this break in your employment differently this time. Remember that we always have a choice.

You made a choice (I didn’t use choose repeatedly two paragraphs ago for nothing!) to do what you did two or ten years ago. The choice may not have turned out as you expected and maybe, knowing what you know now, you would have made a different choice. But, the fact remains that you made a choice with all the information available to you at the time. Own up to that choice. Acknowledge that it was your choice to go along with your spouse.

For some of you, that step might be tough. Take some time if necessary before you have to present this to employers.

Now that you know what your choice was, you want to convey this to potential employers in an honest way. It never makes sense to start off your relationship with your employer by hiding anything. So tell them why you made the choice and why it benefits them.

The best place to do this is in your cover letter or in an interview. A resume is specifically for your professional experiences and skills so including stay at home parent on a resume doesn’t work. It’s best to include it in your cover letter in a way that demonstrates to employers why your break in employment is good for them. If you are applying for a job where what you did in your time off will come in handy, highlight it in your cover letter. If you were a stay at home parent and you are applying to work for a company who serves parents, link your experience to that of their customers. If you know a particular geographic area because you lived there (but didn’t work), make sure they know that your time not working meant more time getting to know the country and its people.

In an interview, an employer may ask you about the gap in your professional experience. You’ll want to address it head-on and make sure they know how it benefits them. If they don’t ask you, you can tell them more about this time in your life in response to another question or add it in at the end if they ask you, “Is there anything else you’d like to add?”

Some readers may not be buying this right now so let’s do a few examples. Let’s say that in an interview you are asked, “It looks like you haven’t worked in this industry in ten years. Why did you leave?” or “Why in the world did you live in a foreign country?” Here are a few common reasons phrased in a way that’s right for an interview.

Example #1: I chose to take time off to raise my kids.

My last position was with Organization X and I truly loved it. However, my spouse was offered a position as a diplomat with the US government and that meant moving overseas and moving countries every two or three years. At the same time he was offered the position, we found out that I was expecting my first child. Since I had to leave my position and there were very few positions in the countries we lived in in this industry, I chose to stay at home and raise my children. My children are older now and I am dying to get back to the industry I love.

I know you might be concerned about me being out of the industry for ten years so let me address that head-on. This industry is truly my calling. I’ve spent the last ten years raising my children always looking forward to getting back to what it is I do best. My time as a parent has not only benefitted my family but also taught me things that will make be a better professional. As anyone who is a parent here knows, you get a lot of chances to practice patience while parenting. I’m much more patient than I was in my twenties when I left the industry. I’m also much more understanding of others’ perspectives and open to alternatives.

Just because I wasn’t working in the industry doesn’t mean I completely fell off the face of the earth. I’m still an active member of The Industry Professional Group, I stay up to date on new developments and technologies, and I’ve continued practicing my skills in volunteer positions such as on the school board.

Example #2: I chose to leave my position to move with my spouse to China.

In 2005, my spouse was offered a position as a diplomat and given his first overseas assignment to China. Since then, we’ve lived in four countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. While I’ve continued working in various roles, I haven’t had the chance to work in my chosen industry since I left.

However, since this industry is what I love doing and what I excel at, I found a way to keep my skills current despite the fact that my position titles may seem diverse. As the Community Liaison Officer at the US Embassy in Zambia, I planned events for approximately 200 people on a shoestring (or sometimes absent) budget.

In addition to my professional experience over the last ten years, you’ll notice that I’m the kind of person who can manage many tasks at one time. I also volunteered at XYZ Non-Profit where I taught their lone bookkeeper who didn’t even have a high school education how to manage their books which lead to them being eligible for international grants and a doubling of their donations the following year.

As you can see, moving overseas with my spouse was not the easy choice. It would have been much easier to stay in my previous position. But I approached it the way I approach everything: with an open mind and the energy and drive to make a difference. Despite the fact that I couldn’t find anything in my industry, I did find fulfilling work where I was able to practice my skills and make an impact on the lives of others – something I look forward to continuing to do in your company/organization.

Example #3: I chose not to work and to focus on something else.

My spouse was offered a position overseas and, although I tried, I wasn’t able to take my position with me and work remotely. I did a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether working on the local economy would be worth it for me and I decided that I would rather spend my time learning something new than hold a job just for the sake of holding a job.

I spent time learning photography, blogging, traveling, and gaining a deep understanding of Russia where we were living. Off the bat, you might not see what that has to with your company but let me tell you. In the short time we lived there, I was able to gain the trust of the Russian people, truly understand their perspective, and deal with logistical challenges that we’ve never even heard of in the US. And, all of that taught me how to do the same with clients. While I had a lot of practice with Americans, adding Russian language and culture to my skillset taught me so much more than just Russian.

I now know how to flip a situation completely on its head and then figure it out anyway. I know what it feels like to be one of our clients who feels completely in the dark about our industry and is trying to figure it out. Because of this perspective, I will be better at dealing with your company’s clients and providing them the level of service they deserve.
Anna Sparks is an international career coach and an Eligible Family Member (EFM) who has found fulfilling, paid employment in all four (so far!) tours with the State Department as well as launched her own business. She works with clients all over the world on their resumes, cover letters, interview skills, and networking strategies to ensure that they get the jobs they really want. She’s an expert at defining why gaps in professional experience and diverse work history are actually a plus for the employer. Want more? Get a copy of her free guide How to Edit Your Own Resume Like a Pro that will walk you through a checklist of all the details your updated resume should include. Or follow her on Facebook where you can find out about her free monthly webinars on all kinds of topics related to your international job search.

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