Reentering the Workforce After a Break: A Guide
Whether you paused your career for 15 years or 15 months, there are specific steps you can take before reentering the workforce
After 18 years as a stay-at-home mom, Elizabeth Gish decided she wanted to re-enter the workforce but she wasn’t sure how to begin looking for a job. Despite having spent four years as a Wall Street investment banker, two as a fixed income trader, and holding an MBA from the University of Denver, Gish worried she lacked the necessary skills for today’s workplace. “I felt behind on technology,” she says. “I had so much self-doubt.”
Those feelings evaporated after she participated in a three-week career workshop on reentering the workforce from Reboot Accel. Participants met twice a week from 9 to 5 at several Silicon Valley tech companies and learned about networking and elevator pitches; they also met with other women who had taken a career pause and returned to work successfully.
“It showed me that I have great soft skills and that I can learn the technical skills,” says Gish, 54. “As the weeks went on, I became more confident.”
During her career break, Gish spent seven years volunteering for All Students Matter — a nonprofit that helps elementary school students improve their performance — tutoring third graders and managing a group of volunteers. Gish’s experience helped her realize that she didn’t want to return to finance. Instead, she pursued a career in corporate social responsibility. When Gish saw a job posting from Oracle, she used her network to find someone who worked there to pass her resume onto the hiring manager. Although that job was too junior for Gish, she asked the hiring manager for an informational interview, which eventually led to a position as Oracle’s manager of corporate citizenship communities.
Gish’s experience is not unusual. An estimated 2.6 million US women hold a bachelors, masters, or PhDs but are currently taking a break from their career, says Addie Swartz, CEO of ReacHIRE, a program that partners with large companies to help women gain skills, training, and mentorship when they return to work. About 1.6 million women want to return to work but struggle to find a path back into corporate life, Swartz says. Similar programs, including Path Forward and iRelaunch, also partner with large companies to provide paid “returnship” programs that allow women to gain skills and mentorship while testing out new, full-time positions.
Returnship programs provide an opportunity for the employee and employer to test the waters, says Diane Flynn, co-founder and CEO of Reboot Accel. “It’s a great way to embark on a lower risk solution for the company and it also allows women to decide if they’re ready to go back.” While 90-95 percent of women decide they love being back at work, returning to corporate life isn’t for everyone.
Here’s Covey’s seven-step how-to guide for jumping back in.
#1: EVALUATE YOUR SKILLS HONESTLY
After a long break, many women are overwhelmed by the prospect of looking for a job. Decide what you want to do and then evaluate your skills against the current marketplace.
Like Gish, many women decide they don’t want to return to the same sector of employment they left in their 20s or 30s. Flynn says take time to figure out what brings you fulfillment and aligns with your values. Ask yourself: What did you like and dislike about your previous jobs? What was the last job that you loved? What job made you feel successful? Swartz suggests focusing on your strengths and skills: create a checklist of what you’re good at, not good at, what you love to do and what you don’t love to do.
Next, evaluate your list of skills in today’s marketplace. “You might have been good at business development 10 years ago but things have changed,” Swartz says. Do a quick online search and find what the latest tools are in your field. Take an online course to update your skills. “It’s possible to upgrade your skills without a heavy lift,” says Swartz. For instance, you can take an online class and be certified in Google Analytics in an afternoon. You can also check with your alma mater to see if your college or university offers alumni career services, offers Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch.
#2: HONE YOUR NETWORK AND ELEVATOR PITCH
The next two items on your to-do list are developing a strong network and crafting a 30-second elevator pitch.
About 85 percent of women returning to work find jobs through their network, so reach out to your former colleagues and talk to your friends, Flynn says. If you’re not sure what to say to your former colleagues and college classmates, Cohen suggests sending an email with this icebreaker question: “It’s great to be back in touch. I’ve been on a career break for the last 10 years and I’m currently in information gathering mode. I’m attempting to become a subject matter expert again and I’m beginning a deep dive into the latest thinking in our field. Where can I find expert opinion in our field? Who should I follow and who should I be reading? What podcasts should I listen to?”
Go public with your job search and tell everyone you know. More importantly, put yourself in situations where you will meet new people. If you’re not sure where to start meeting other professionals, Cohen suggests joining Toastmasters or attending a university lecture series. Toastmasters, which focuses on communications and leadership, has many local chapters and is relatively inexpensive to join, and it will allow you to meet people who are already employed. “It is a great place to start having conversations about yourself and your background,” Cohen says.
If you live near a college, sign up for a university lecture series with the goal of talking to the person sitting next to you. Then eventually work up to introducing yourself to the speaker. “You need to practice talking about your background and what you’re interested in doing,” Cohen says. That’s why developing a 30-second elevator pitch about what you want to do is essential. “A lot of time opportunity comes up when you least expect it but you have to start that conversation,” says Bobbie Grafeld, vice president of Human Resources at Walmart Labs, which recently partnered with Path Forward to offer a 16-week returnship program in both Sunnyvale and San Bruno, California.
#3: TRANSLATE YOUR SKILLS FOR A RESUME
If you’ve been out of the workplace for a decade or more you probably don’t have a LinkedIn profile or a resume but both are essential tools for your search. Grafeld recommends tweaking your resume for each position you apply for, but that can sound overwhelming if you’ve been at home for the last 10 years.
Flynn says, don’t be shy about translating your “mommy skills” into job skills. While your past work history is relevant, so is what you did during your career break. Rather than describing what you did during your break, explain what you learned while volunteering and what skills you gained from that experience.
For instance, during Flynn’s career break, she sat on three boards and chaired the PTA. “I was managing 70 volunteers and that’s more challenging than managing people who get a paycheck,” she says. Skills to highlight include meeting deadlines, managing budgets, and teams, as well as your marketing and outreach skills. The key is to translate what you did during your pause into skills that match the workplace. “What people want to know is what skills you have that are translatable to the job that they have open,” Swartz says.
If you didn’t volunteer during your break, Cohen recommends pursuing strategic volunteer work that supports your career goals. You can find opportunities at Idealist.org, VolunteerMatch.org, and CatchaFire.org.
#4: TALK ABOUT YOUR CAREER BREAK WITH CONFIDENCE
“Be sincere about why you took a break and why you want to come back,” Grafeld says. “While you might be returning for economic reasons, there is probably something else driving you to get back into the workforce and being able to talk about that is important.”
Be careful not to apologize for taking time off. Instead, acknowledge your time away from the workplace and move on to why you are the best person for the job. Cohen suggests saying something like this: “Yes, I took a career break to care for my children and now I can’t wait to get back to work. In fact, the reason I am so interested in this particular position is because of the work experience I had at Xerox where we faced very similar customer challenges. One of the most difficult situations was maintaining customer satisfaction and this is what we did.” Then share an anecdote that highlights your abilities, she says. To learn more about how to discuss your career break, watch this mock interview featuring Morning Joe host Mika Brzezinski asking Cohen about her time off from work.
#5: NEGOTIATE YOUR SALARY
Women returning to work rarely return at their same salary level. In fact, a Stanford professor once told Flynn that most women sacrifice 20 percent of their salary for every year they’ve been out of work. While Flynn isn’t sure the penalty is that high, she admits “there is a huge sacrifice to pausing and it gets close to 20 percent every year, once you get past five or six years.”
Women who voluntarily leave the workforce don’t realize what they’re giving up, Flynn says. “When I took a pause, I didn’t really think about it.” But Flynn encourages women who want to return to work to get their foot in the door and then negotiate a salary review after six months on the job.
When Grafeld returned to work, it took her several years of lifting herself through the ranks just to reach the same level of responsibility she had at the job she had before leaving to take care of her family; it took another several years to reach a position with C-level visibility as vice president of Human Resources at Walmart Labs. Grafeld wishes she hadn’t taken a 100 percent step back when she left her full-time job. “Stay connected with your industry in some way,” she says. “Taking a step back doesn’t have to mean you have been completely out of the game.”
#6: REALIZE IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT THE MONEY
Sometimes women don’t want to go back to that big corporate job with that six-figure salary. Some women return to work not because they want to climb the corporate ladder, but to be part of a team, make a contribution, or sometimes they really just need the income or benefits because they’re recently divorced or widowed. After a divorce or the death of a spouse, you might need to take a low-level job that allows you enough flexibility to take care of your children or another aspect of your life. The job might fit another need — benefits, an opportunity to build skills, or the ability to be part of a community. Keep in mind that your first job back after a break won’t be your last job but it could be the right job for right now, Swartz says.
For instance, Flynn knew a woman who left a director-level job to take a 12-year pause. When she returned to work after her spouse unexpectedly died, she took an assistant-level job because it provided flexible hours and necessary benefits. “Women who reenter the workforce after divorce or the death of a spouse need to think through what is important,” Flynn says. “For some, it’s the salary and benefits, or sometimes just the benefits. Or they might need the flexibility.”
#7: CREATE A SUPPORT SYSTEM BEFORE YOUR FIRST DAY BACK
Your first week or month back at work will be stressful. “You can’t go from zero to 60 overnight. So before you return to work put systems in place so that when you get the job, you can give it your all,” Swartz says.
Consider restructuring your personal time so you’re ready to work 9 to 5, five days a week. That could mean finding afternoon childcare, investing in a meal service, or changing your schedule so you’re grocery shopping once a week, not three times a week. Creating this personal infrastructure also will help boost your confidence, Swartz adds.
“Be prepared for how rough the first couple of months might be,” Grafeld says. Outsource as much as you can and lower your standards. “Your house might not be as clean, the laundry might not get done as often and you have to learn to let go and prioritize.”