Nurse Resume Tips: Explaining Gaps in Work History

Each quarter ADVANCE asks nurse recruiters, educators, career coaches and other experts to give advice on how to be noticed in a highly competitive job market. In this installment we look at gaps in work history.

There was a time when nurses, particularly women, could slip in and out of the job market and nobody would bat an eye. The assumption was made the nurse was home raising a family, taking care of parents or relocating for a spouse’s job. Whatever the reason, nurses were welcomed back to the hospital with open arms because there were so many openings to fill.

Today, in a much more competitive market, recruiters look more critically at work history. We asked three experts to share their perceptions of gaps in work history.

Christine F. Rue, BSN, RN, CHCR, PHR, is senior human resource business partner, nursing, at Abington Memorial Hospital in Abington, Pa. Lisa Mauri Thomas is dean of education at Brown College in Minneapolis. She is also a r‚sum‚ writer and job search strategist. She is the author of the book Landing Your Perfect Nursing JobDuarte R. Mendonca is employee relations manager, Bethesda Health, Boynton Beach, Fla.

ADVANCE: How forgiving are you when you see employment gaps on a r‚sum‚?

Rue: In reviewing an application or r‚sum‚, when I notice gaps in employment, I would note the length and occurrence. If the candidate is brought in for an interview, I would question the reasons.

Thomas: I am a little forgiving. During the Great Recession, so many people lost their jobs so it is not uncommon to see some gaps. Even nursing is not fully recession-proof and it was quite difficult for new nurse grads to land their first role. However, it is so important to keep skills and connections sharp no matter what your employment situation is or for how long. There are many nonprofit organizations that need your help when you are out of work. Volunteer work is work; it’s also a great way for someone unemployed to give back, feel productive/useful and to build skills as they seek out paid employment. I don’t care if the work history section contains paid and/or unpaid work experiences. What counts is that such experiences are listed and tied to relevant skills (directly or indirectly) for what I’m hiring for now.

Mendonca: Gaps are red flags. However, there are viable reasons as to why people have gaps. The main focus should be providing the recruiter with the answers before we can ask the question or even formulate our opinions about the gap. I feel it is up to the candidate to take ownership of their r‚sum‚ and the information they provide. Just give me the answers I need. For example, if you were a stay-at-home parent then just say that and mention any volunteer work you did during that time.


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ADVANCE: What assumptions do you make about a candidate based on when the gap occurs in the work history, how long it lasted and how long ago it was?

Rue: I don’t make any assumptions.

Thomas: If the last employment entry listed on a r‚sum‚ ended in 2011 and there is no sign of any volunteer work, self-employment, or other activity since, I will likely pass the r‚sum‚ over and look to other candidates. I will ask in a screening interview call about prior gaps, but those won’t rule a person out so long as relevant/recent experience has been developed since the gap occurred. However, if there are numerous or “serial” gaps, I will likely decide to pursue other candidates.

This would also apply if the gaps were simply due to being “in between” temporary assignments. That needs to be made clear to me from the start. In that instance, it’s far better to list the nursing/staffing agency as the predominant employer from date of hire, then indicate in bulleted statements the clients served, roles played, duties performed and length of the assignment.

Mendonca: There are viable reason for gaps of employment, however, time does factor into the decision-making process. Both when the gap occurred and for how long are vital to the screening process and have many variables, so this question makes it difficult to provide a definitive answer.


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In the world of online applications what role does the cover letter play?

ADVANCE: How and when should a candidate give an explanation for a gap in work history (i.e., in the cover letter or r‚sum‚, or only in the interview)?

Rue: A cover letter could explain a long or recent gap, but mostly that would be part of the interview.

Thomas: Gaps can be cleared up pretty easily on a r‚sum‚ such as in the example about temporary assignments. Also, stay-at-home parents of young children can indicate they were out for a spell while focusing on the needs of their family (such as caring for elderly parents), without needing to give much detail. If gaps cannot be readily explained on the r‚sum‚ (and such gaps will be noticed), acknowledge it in the cover letter briefly and don’t mention it again unless the recruiter or hiring manager asks first. Don’t say you “will discuss it in the interview” as the recruiter may assume they’re about to get a “sob story” and avoid having to hear about it by not pursuing you any further as a candidate. This isn’t always the case, but happens often enough to steer clear of it. Recruiters and hiring managers hear too many sob stories in interviews as it is – and it’s always a turn off or at least treated as a big red flag. You might actually think the gap is a bigger deal than the recruiter will, so briefly acknowledge it and move on.

Mendonca: The gap in employment should be addressed right up front. Either in the cover letter or in the application, as many employers will ask you to explain gaps in employment [history]. I would rather they do both: cover it in detail in the cover letter and then document the gap on the application, which can be used as a legal document of the candidate’s work history.


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ADVANCE: If a nurse has not worked recently, at what point do they need to take a refresher course?

Rue: A nurse would need a refresher course after being out of practice for more than three-four years.

Thomas: Skills need to be kept current. Certainly, licensure and certifications must be kept up-to-date. Refer back to the point about keeping skills fresh through volunteer work. Also, consider teaching, nursing-related writing projects for formal or online publications, etc. Use time off from work to earn new certifications. It’s not so much about the time away from paid nursing work as it is about how you keep your skills sharp in the meantime.

Mendonca: Anything more than two years and the nurse would at the very least need to be provided with a strong orientation into an acute care setting.

Linda Jones is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact [email protected].

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