When Sheila Snodgrass had her daughter 14 years ago, she planned on taking two years off from work. But as a military spouse whose husband was away half the time, Snodgrass couldn’t find adequate child care that would allow her to go back to work. The writer and editor was unemployed for five years.

“It created gaps in my resume,” Snodgrass, 40, says. “Working at home with a toddler was a struggle. I never really did go back into the newsroom or into a true communications position full time.”

Years later, Snodgrass has her own business as a freelancer (or “consultant,” as she was advised to say to seem more professional). “I would love to be someplace more permanently — remote, hybrid, or in the office,” she says. But the only jobs she’s been offered have been at entry-level rates.

Millions of people in Canada have experienced gaps in their employment, including those taking time off to care for children or sick or elderly relatives and people with health challenges or criminal records. Resume gaps have become especially common in the COVID-19 era: Employment dropped by 20% from January to May 2020 and didn’t return to pre-pandemic levels until mid-2022, according to Statistics Canada. 

For employers seeking to be more inclusive or struggling to hire in fields from health care to hospitality, people with resume gaps are an important source of untapped talent. They can help replace the millions of baby boomers who are exiting the labour force internationally; the working-age population is set to shrink over the coming decade in countries including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. 

According to a 2021 study by Harvard Business School and Accenture, the United States has 27 million “hidden workers” — people who are unemployed or underemployed and are often passed over in hiring. Yet organizations that hire them get a return on investment: The report found that companies that hire hidden workers are 36% less likely to experience talent and skill shortages. Former hidden workers also outperform their peers on attitude and work ethic, productivity, quality of work, engagement, attendance, and innovation, the report says. 

Here’s how companies can tap into this essential talent pool.

Begin at the beginning: The job description

Hidden workers can fall through the cracks at the start: The job posting itself. Are you using language that might discourage groups of workers you actually want to attract? Terms like “rock star,” “superhero,” “guru,” and “ninja” can prevent women from clicking on a job listing, as Indeed’s sibling company Glassdoor points out. A cliché like “work hard, play hard” could be seen as code for after-hours bar nights, which is a potential turnoff to parents. 

When companies screen qualified people out of the hiring process or overlook their potential because they don’t currently have a job, it’s a lose-lose situation, both for motivated job seekers and for the companies that could benefit most from their talent and skills. 

Take a close look at your recruiting technologies

It’s not enough to reframe job descriptions. Employers may need to reconsider the talent acquisition systems themselves. Sometimes the software they use — their recruitment management system — filters out people who are currently out of work. 

As an alternative approach, Indeed clients can use a “direct to interview” program, which does not take resumes into account. Instead, people answer a few screening questions, and if they’re successful they get an email allowing them to set up an interview. 

Focus on transferable skills

From stay-at-home parents who raised funds for their children’s schools to caretakers who honed their compassion and interpersonal skills while assisting aging relatives, people with gaps in their resumes often have transferable skills.

“We talk a lot about how moms can talk about the gaps in their resumes and share what they’ve learned,” says Pamela Cohen, Ph.D., chief research and analytics officer at Werklabs/The Mom Project, a digital talent marketplace that helps mothers find jobs. “Caregivers are able to multitask, are resilient, have empathy, have dealt with toddlers and teenagers and other family members while running a household — and that makes them better managers,” she says. “It may not be paid work, but it’s still work.”

The Mom Project also helps companies set aside preconceived notions about what it takes to succeed in a job, Cohen says. For example, instead of focusing on past work experience, companies should consider “soft skills,” like drive, fortitude, interest level, and the ability to multitask. 

“To find good, strong, and loyal talent, companies are recognizing they need to look in places they normally wouldn’t,” Cohen says. She often hears from companies that the mothers they hired were willing to learn and hit the ground running.

Prepare your workforce

After hiring people who have an employment gap, it’s essential to integrate them — for example, pairing them with mentors and support groups. And prepare your existing employees to welcome them. Encourage others to share their stories of past resume gaps, and make sure the team understands the business case for hiring people who’ve had time out of the workforce.

The pandemic has transformed how organizations and employees view work and hiring. “We had all these constraints in our head, and then they all got blown away,” says Lisa Ramirez, Senior Vice President of Operations at Indeed, noting that everyone had to rethink everything, from the need to be on-site or work traditional 9 to 5 hours, to which candidates could fill open roles. “A lot of these things are constraints that we built into our heads about the way the world works, but maybe it turns out that nothing’s actually a constraint.”