Why job seekers and employers should flip the script and embrace time taken away from work as an asset—not a liability.
The numbers are staggering. More than 40 million quit their jobs in 2021. And the trend—which has been called The Great Resignation or The Great Reshuffle—continues into 2022 as millions more quit every month. What gets buried in the data is the fact that most of those people aren’t checking out of the workforce permanently. While some simply moved on to other jobs for reasons that might include better pay, others either were forced or chose to take what we might now call a “career break” before re-entering the job market.
In the past, having a gap like this on your resume could have been a deal breaker for potential employers. But that narrative is changing—especially since the pandemic. “Many people were forced to leave their jobs while others chose to take a break to better manage life outside of work,” says Erin Scruggs, VP, Talent Acquisition at LinkedIn. “Women were especially impacted with 54 million out of jobs globally during the first year of the pandemic alone.”
The good news for job seekers is that as most employers continue to struggle to find skilled talent, they’ve begun to shift their thinking about career breaks.
Case in point: Data collected by LinkedIn shows that half of employers (52%) now believe candidates should proactively bring up their career breaks during their interviews and highlight what they’ve learned in their time away from the office.
Scruggs and I discussed ways that job seekers can best leverage their career break, as well as how employers should rethink how a career break could actually be an asset for a prospective hire.
Taking a break
Early in my career, taking a “break” had a negative stigma. Employers often took it as a signal that you had lost your job or were perhaps “lazy.” It usually meant you had to spend an uncomfortable part of any interview explaining it away. But times sure are changing.
According to LinkedIn’s data, two-thirds (62%) of employees have taken a break at some point in their career. Nearly half of hiring managers believe that people with a career break are an untapped talent pool, and nearly two-thirds of hiring managers say they’re more likely now than before the pandemic to hire someone who has taken a break from work.
“It’s exciting that the narrative on career breaks is shifting,” says Scruggs. “The pandemic enabled this concept of ‘the whole person’ where Zoom screens clearly showed the intersection of personal and professional. There is a deeper recognition of humanity, and I believe that recognition and acceptance has started to normalize these life events that lead to career breaks.”
And the reasons that people take career breaks are as unique as people themselves, says Scruggs.
“As an employer, we’re noticing that these breaks can be tied to learning a new skill, raising a family or following a life passion,” she says. “And our most recent data shows additional reasons that may be tied to caregiving responsibilities, traveling and focusing on their health and wellbeing. These breaks are no longer unusual. Job seekers should feel more comfortable and confident if they’ve taken a career break.”
A time to learn and grow
With employers more open than ever to interviewing candidates who have taken a career break, normalizing these breaks will be essential to help eliminate any remaining stigma around them. Scruggs says that 51% of employers would more likely call a candidate back if they knew the context of why they took a career break.
That’s why it’s critical for job seekers to highlight the benefits of the breaks they’ve taken: the new skills, experiences and perspectives they’ve gained during their time away from work and how they map back to the role for which they’re applying.
Scruggs shared an example of someone who took time away from their career to serve as a caretaker, perhaps caring for young children, ill loved ones or aging parents. That individual may have sharpened skills like resilience, compassion and navigating complex healthcare systems.
Or, if someone took time off to travel, they may have learned new skills like budgeting, adaptability and cultural competence while exploring new cities and countries.
“I would advise job seekers to be intentional about how they reflect their break to employers,” says Scruggs. “Having a few bullet points that demonstrates your awareness of how your break has shaped you and your skills is critical so that your time away is not interpreted as ‘lost time.’”
She advises any job seeker to practice your talk track and ensure you are giving yourself due credit for what you’ve learned and how you’ve evolved. “Weave in what makes you unique as a professional, and what makes the talent you bring to any place you work invaluable,” she says.
Reworking the interview
Career breaks will continue to carry a stigma until recruiters and hiring leaders move away from the 30-second profile scan that primarily looks at the most recent job when evaluating potential candidates.
“Curiosity about the holistic profile will expand the pool of available talents and can lead to a ‘screen in’ approach versus ‘screen out,’” says Scruggs. “It’s easier to use job titles and years of experience as a proxy to decide who to call. In a competitive talent market, employers will win when they go deeper, get curious and learn about the person beyond the profile.”
One way to go deeper in a conversation with a job seeker is to ask them about the kinds of skills they may have learned or honed on their career break. “Recruiters should ask questions that focus on skills or behaviors that help level the playing field, as opposed to more traditional questions that are centered on pedigree and past work experience,” says Scruggs.
She suggests asking questions like:
- “Tell me about the evolution you saw in yourself during this break? What did you learn about problem-solving? How would you apply those skills in this role?”
- “The environment for this role is fast-paced and requires our team to be able to change directions frequently. Tell me about a time during that break that required you to change course and what you learned about staying agile.”
- “The role will have many competing priorities, and you’ll be asked to balance many workstreams effectively. What have you learned about prioritization and multitasking and how might you apply that to the role?”
Leaning into a flexible workplace
As employers forge ahead in their efforts to win the War for Talent, attracting candidates who have taken career breaks also means embracing flexibility and intentionally building it into the workplace.
“More and more employers are recognizing this with 81% of leaders changing their workplace policies to offer greater flexibility,” says Scruggs.
The takeaway is that as we move into the future, how, where and when we work will continue to change. And it’s the employers who best understand their shift and lean into creating as flexible a workplace as possible will undoubtedly become tomorrow’s employers of choice.
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