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How to turn your career break into an advantage in your next interview

Why employers and employers should turn over the script and accept the time taken out of work as an asset — not an obligation.

The numbers are staggering. In 2021, more than 40 million people quit their jobs. And the trend, known as The Great Recognition or The Great Reasonable, will continue into 2022, with millions abandoning each month. The fact that it is embedded in the data means that most people are not checking employees forever. While some simply move to other jobs for reasons that may include better pay, others have been forced to take what we now call a “career break” before re-entering the job market.

In the past, having this kind of gap in your resume could be a deal breaker for potential employers. But that narrative is changing — especially with the epidemic. “Many were forced to quit their jobs, while others chose to take a break to better manage their outside work life,” says Erin Scruggs, VP of Talent Acquisition at LinkedIn. “Women are particularly affected by 54 million jobs globally in the first year of the epidemic.”

The good news for job seekers is that as more and more employers are struggling to find skilled talent, they have begun to change their thinking about career breaks.

Case in point: Data collected by LinkedIn shows that half of employers (52%) believe that candidates should be able to anticipate their career breaks during interviews and highlight what they have learned while away from office.

Scruggs and I discussed ways employers can make better use of their career breaks, as well as how employers should rethink how career breaks can become an asset for prospective renters.

I’m taking a break

Early in my career, taking a “break” had a negative stigma. Employers often take this as a sign that you have lost your job or perhaps a “zombie”. This means you have to spend time explaining the unpleasant part of any interview. But time is definitely changing.

According to LinkedIn data, more than two-thirds (62%) of employees have taken a break at some point in their careers. Nearly half of hiring managers believe that people with career breaks are a talent pool, and nearly two-thirds of hiring managers say it’s now more than ever before the epidemic to hire someone who has taken a break from work.

“It’s exciting that the career break narrative is changing,” says Scruggs. “The epidemic enabled the concept of ‘whole person’, where zoom screens clearly show the intersection of personal and professional. There is a deep recognition of humanity, and I believe that recognition and acceptance have begun to normalize these life events that lead to career breaks.

And Scruggs says the reasons people take career breaks are as unique as people.

“As an employer, we notice that these breaks can be combined to learn a new skill, raise a family, or pursue a life passion,” he says. “And our latest data shows additional reasons for caring responsibilities, travel and focus on their health and well-being. These breaks are no longer uncommon. Employers should feel more comfortable and confident if they take a career break.

Time to learn and grow

As employers are more open than ever to interview applicants who have taken a career break, normalizing these breaks can help eliminate any stigma surrounding them. Scruggs says 51% of employers will call a candidate back if they know the context of why they took a career break.

This is why it is crucial for employers to highlight the benefits of the breaks they have taken: the new skills, experiences and perspectives they have gained while away from work and how they map to the role they apply.

Scruggs shares the example of those who have shied away from their careers, serving as caretakers, perhaps looking after young children, sick loved ones or elderly parents. That person may have resilience, compassion, and sharp skills such as navigating complex health systems.

Or, if someone takes the time to travel, they may be learning new skills, such as budgeting, flexibility, and cultural competence as they explore new cities and countries.

I would advise employers to be intentional about how employers reflect on their breaks, ”says Scruggs. “Having some bullet points that demonstrate your awareness of how your break has shaped you and your skills is critical so your distance is not interpreted as ‘lost time’.”

They advise any employer to practice your talk track and make sure you are giving them the credit you deserve for what you have learned and how you have evolved. “The talent that makes you unique as a professional and brings you to any place you work in, is invaluable,” he says.

The interview is being reworked

Career breaks bring stigma to recruiters and hiring leaders away from a 30-second profile scan that primarily looks at recent work when evaluating potential candidates.

“The curiosity about a comprehensive profile extends the collection of available talent and can lead to a‘ screen in ’versus a‘ screen in ’approach,” says Scruggs. “It’s easy to use job titles and years of experience as a proxy to decide who to call. In a competitive talent market, employers win when they go deeper, curiously, and learn about a person beyond profile.

One way to go deeper into conversations with employers is to ask them about the skills they have learned or honed in their career breaks. “Recruiters should ask questions that focus on skills or behaviors that help level the playing field as opposed to more traditional questions centered on genealogy and past work experience,” says Scruggs.

She suggests asking such questions:

  • “Tell me about the evolution you saw in this break? What have you learned about problem solving? How do you apply those skills in this role?
  • “The environment is fast for this role and our team will be able to change directions frequently. Tell me what you learned about staying agile and staying on course during that break.
  • “The role has many competing priorities and you are asked to effectively balance multiple workflows. What have you learned about priority and multitasking and how can you apply it to the role? “

Favor a flexible workplace

When employers are embarking on their efforts to win the battle for talent, attracting candidates who have taken career breaks means embracing flexibility and deliberately building it up in the workplace.

“More and more employers are recognizing that 81% of leaders are changing their workplace policies to give them more flexibility,” says Scruggs.

The takeaway is that as we move into the future, how, where and when we work will change. And when employers understand their change well and tend to create the most flexible workplace possible, they will undoubtedly become the employer of tomorrow’s choice.

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