Whether you’re ready to go back to work after taking time off or just thinking about it, my Returning to Work After a Career Break Webinar will be helpful. It’s full of the professional advice that I use in my position as Senior Associate Director, Career & Leadership at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School but geared toward women returning to work. Sign-up to receive the Webinar Replay that you can watch at your convenience — it’s about 30 minutes — and the accompanying Worksheet, and return to work the right way.
Returning to Work Webinar Replay
I'll send an email directly to you with a link to this webinar replay that you can watch at your convenience as well as the worksheet.
Preparing to re-enter the workforce can be overwhelming! Download this step-by-step plan to get you going in the right direction.
I want to address an age-old question asked by women contemplating a professional comeback:
Should I take just any old job or should I hold out for the right one?
This is a question I hear a lot and it’s a question that I asked myself often as I looked for a job after being out of the full-time workforce for many years. Here’s the easy answer: It depends.
The answer to this question depends entirely on what is motivating you to go back to work. Here’s my point: If you need to start earning income for you or your families’ survival now, then you should take the best job you can find quickly. By “best” I mean highest paying. Life is expensive, kids are expensive and it takes money to survive. Pure and simple. Divorce often forces women back into the workforce, or your spouse might have been laid off. Whatever the situation, if quickly earning income has become your primary motivation, then find a job and bloom where you’ve been planted. You don’t have to stay there forever but my personal rule of thumb is that you do have to do your best while you’re there. If you sense that you’re just passing through, work diligently so that when you leave you’ll have a great recommendation and can feel good about the work you did.
While the need for money motivates many women to return to work quickly, others find that their timing isn’t quite so urgent. To you, I say – lucky you! You have the luxury of doing the 3 steps of Reflect, Research and Activate that I think are so important to a successful job search. The Reflection step is of critical importance in a job search because this is the step where you think deeply about your skills, your past experiences and your current interests and add them all up to set a course for your future.
I want a career break to become a very normal part of a person’s career (both women and men) and for employers to view these not as breaks from real work, but as opportunities to develop more deeply as people, as parents, as travelers or as caregivers of aging parents. Your ability to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown during your career break is a key part of finding direction for your job search. And setting off on a journey with a destination in mind is going to get you there faster than if you are just wandering through the job search process, applying to something different every day.
If you are motivated to return to work by a desire to re-engage your professional self, to grow as a person in a professional capacity, to put your valuable skills to work and to earn a good income while doing so, then you have the luxury to look until you (a) find the right job or (b) find a job that offers a trade-off that you are comfortable taking. Every decision we make is a trade-off between things that are important to us. If your job search is starting to feel like it’s taking a long time, and you’re considering taking the next job that comes along, here are a few things you can consider:
- Will this job keep me moving forward? Will I learn here? Will I meet people that will grow my professional network? Will I feel good about the work I’m doing?
- Can I think of this job as a stepping stone? Will it get me closer to where I’d like to be professionally?
If you can answer “yes” to any of those questions, then maybe it’s time to take the job.
The second part of this question is –
Do I have to take a job making less money or with a lower title than I held before I took a career break?
My guidance is that I want you aim high, but you must understand that the burden of proving your value to an employer rests with you and only you. How can you prove that you’re worthy of your previous salary and title?
- By demonstrating that you’ve spent your career break learning and keeping your skills fresh
- By taking courses to refresh your job skills
- By becoming active (and being known) in a professional association relevant to your field
- By maintaining a network of influential people in your field
Then develop your personal brand image to illustrate your value.
One final thought: When I was job searching, I realized early on that my next job was going to come from someone who knew me personally and not from a resume that I blindly sent out over the Internet. And this belief changed my job search activities from sitting behind my computer sending out resumes to instead viewing every opportunity to talk to someone as a chance to get one step closer to finding the right job. And, guess what? It worked.
You’ve got the power!
You have the power to tell your story in your own words every time you meet someone new, write a cover letter or go for a job interview. Don’t give away that power! It’s called positioning and if you don’t position yourself a certain way, others will position you where they think you belong. Positioning is so important that it’s one of the famed 4 P’s of marketing. Isn’t marketing yourself successfully what job searching is all about?
As a job seeker with a gap in your work history, you are an unconventional candidate. A recruiter will look at your resume and wonder “What was she doing during the years that she wasn’t working?” You don’t want a recruiter to wonder about you and here’s why:
Why You Must Tell Your Own Story
I have a recruiter friend who has looked at a resume with a gap in the presence of other recruiters. When there is no explanation for the gap, the recruiters discuss possible reasons why the candidate has a work gap and eventually settle on a reason that seems plausible to them. Then they use this made-up information to justify offering the candidate a lower salary since the candidate appears out of work and probably won’t negotiate. Sound wrong? You bet! But it happens, and this is why you must clearly position yourself as a viable job candidate with relevant skills and experience and no mystery.
How to take charge of your personal positioning:
#1 Know what you gained from your career sabbatical
Everyone knows it’s not easy raising children or caring for elderly parents, but it’s up to you to articulate why you are a better job candidate than the next person. Did you learn a new skill, manage people or projects through your church or your children’s school, do volunteer work or gain a new perspective on work and life? Consider your career break as one chapter in the long book of your career and practice speaking about your break and what you gained from it with confidence. Work this right into your elevator pitch.
#2: Have a compelling story about a recent skill upgrade that you pursued
Determine which skills are most valued in the line of work you want to get into, and be sure you not only possess them but can speak to how you recently updated them. Being able to say something like “I just took a course in data analytics at Wake Tech” or “I made a commitment to spend 5 hours a week on online coursework in Project Management skills” can make a powerful impression and position you as a continuous learner using your career break to prepare yourself for your next step. Be sure your recent coursework and skill upgrades are included on your LinkedIn profile.
#3: Make sure your resume isn’t full of holes
Write a strong Summary or Objective at the top of the resume that presents you as a professional and takes the mystery out of any significant work gaps. Consider attending the Back to Business Women’s Conference on February 21, 2020 in Research Triangle Park, NC where we’ll have a resume-writing workshop. Or seek 1-on-1 help from a professional resume expert like Mir Garvey of RTP Resumes.
Take charge of your professional reputation and personal brand. If you aren’t proactive about telling your story, you are missing out on the opportunity to market yourself as a great job candidate. I encourage you to think about what you want your professional identity to look like and to make sure that your resume, cover letters, LinkedIn profile and networking efforts are all working together to reinforce this identity. Have a cohesive story, own it and tell it with confidence.
Check out more articles with specific job-hunting tips for women returning to work after a career break at www.BacktoBusinessConference.com.
For women, professional dress is often a topic that causes a lot of confusion. We suggest that you dress for the Back to Business Women’s Conference as if you were going to an interview – use it as a practice run so that when you do have an interview you aren’t suiting up for the first time in a long time. Even though workplaces have evolved to be much more casual today than they were in the past, there is still an expectation that you wear a suit to an interview.
Here are a few suggestions for business attire. Our motto is: keep it simple and err on the conservative side.
- You can’t go wrong with a black or navy blue suit and a light-colored blouse. Both pantsuits and skirts are fine. A skirt that ends at your knee looks both stylish and professional. You shouldn’t have to spend a lot of money for a basic suit.
- A pair of solid-colored pants or a skirt with a blouse works well also. Avoid loud patterns and low-cut necklines. If you’re not going to be wearing a suit to work once you get that job, don’t invest in a suit now. Instead, go with a nice-looking pair of dark pants or a skirt and blouse that fit well. Look for a pair of tailored pants and make sure they are clean and well-pressed.
- Keep your jewelry simple.
- Much has been written about the impression that shoes make during job interviews. They don’t have to be fancy, but they do need to look polished, and not worn.
- Avoid trendy looks and go for more of a classic style. You don’t have to be boring, but a well-tailored, professional look says a lot of positive things about you before you even open your mouth to wow a potential employer. First impressions count for a lot!
What’s “Business Casual” all about?
And here’s a word about “business casual” because this is a phrase that often leaves people wondering what exactly they should wear: Business casual should be more business and less casual! While a full suit is not required, go for a tailored skirt or suit pants and a blouse. You’ll still want to make a businesslike impression.
Dear 25-year old Self:
You’re just a few years into what will hopefully be a long and fulfilling career. I know you’re not thinking about how you’ll juggle career and family when the time comes, and that’s exactly why I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over the past 20 years. You may want to take a break from your career to raise a family. Here are some strategies for success you can employ now that will make it easier to re-start your career when the time is right:
- Keep one foot in the working world: If you can find an opportunity to continue to work on a limited or part-time basis, take it! This allows you to have an employment history without a gap and to stay in touch with the professional world. Besides, it’s refreshing to have adult conversations. This is the #1 thing that women returning to work tell me they wish they’d known when they left their jobs to stay home.
- Make family your priority: You’ve heard it before – you’ll never get back those years when your children are young. If you have the luxury to be around for those early milestones and you want to be home, then seize the opportunity and savor it.
- Consider your options, choose confidently and enjoy life. Forget “working mommy guilt”, whatever that is. Whether you choose to continue working or to stay home with your children, do the best job you can and don’t second-guess yourself. You can always reconsider your decision as your circumstances change, but move forward with confidence in whatever direction you’ve chosen.
- Raise independent children: Having your own career, interests and hobbies is so much easier when you’ve raised independent children. I recently dropped my rising 9th grader off for student-only freshman orientation and was bewildered by all the moms going in with their kids. When I asked my daughter if she’d like me to come in she said “Mom, I’ve got this.” Wow – did that make my day! I drove to work feeling a bit sad that she was growing up so fast, but absolutely thrilled that she was so confident and independent.
- Attend a conference once a year: This is a great way to meet people and stay current on new developments in your field. Choose a conference nearby to keep the cost low or pick a conference in a city where you have friends or family and turn this into a business vacation. May we suggest the Back to Business Women’s Conference? It is held in October in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Tons of professional job search advice, support from an amazing community of women, a resume workshop, a networking workshop, and so much more – just what you need if you’re returning to work!
- Keep the network up: Make a conscious effort to keep in touch with your professional contacts. This can be as easy as emailing a few people each week to say hello and let them know what you’re up to.
- Continue to meet as many people as you can during your work hiatus. I know you’ll be busy (I get it, we have four children!), but some of the people I built relationships with during the time that I wasn’t working full-time were instrumental in helping me return to work when the time came.
- Have lunch with former co-workers: I left IBM in 2003, but meet my former office-mate for lunch every fall. We have entirely different networks since our careers have gone in different directions, but over the years we’ve each asked the other to make introductions for us. And since fall is fast approaching, I’d better go check the calendar and invite Jeff to lunch!
- Have coffee with someone new and interesting every month to talk shop: I know this sounds weird if you’re not in the habit of doing this, but a few times this summer I’ve reached out to people that I didn’t know personally to invite them to have coffee and talk about something specific. I was rewarded with fascinating conversations and great new ideas! You’ll get more comfortable with this the more you do it. I promise. I used LinkedIn inmail which was great for this.
- Be a continuous learner: Subscribe to whatever magazine people in your profession read to stay current with developments in your field. I’ve subscribed to Fortune Magazine since I was in graduate school and since they just kept extending my student rate, I kept ordering it. Sure, some months they piled up on my coffee table, but I eventually read most of them and over the course of the 12 years that I considered myself primarily a stay-at-home parent, I digested a lot of business news.
- Get a good web crawler to send you articles on your field every day: The key here is to send them directly to an email folder so that when you have the time you can read to your hearts content (or until the baby cries). If they aren’t piling up in your inbox, you won’t feel guilty that you don’t get to them all. Directing them to an email folder ensures that when you’re ready to read, you’ve got a well-stocked shelf of relevant articles.
- Develop a new skill: Taking a break from your career or downshifting for a time can provide a great opportunity to make a directional change. With so many great courses online, you can develop new skills without even leaving your house that will keep you sharp when you’re ready to return to work.
- Update your resume every year on the same day: Call it your “resume-aversary” (OK,don’t call it that), but understand that designating the same day to do this each year increases the likelihood that it will happen. If you’ve taken a significant career break and haven’t even looked at your resume in 10 years, this can be a real roadblock to getting back in the job market.
- Set aside money for professional development while you have an income. This way you won’t hesitate to invest in yourself when you’re not working. While there are lots of free courses and advice out there, you’ll find that occasionally spending money to keep your skills fine-tuned will really pay off in the long run.
I hope that by the time you’re ready to restart your career, the working world has evolved to seeing a career break as an opportunity for growth and personal development. I can say with confidence that the 12 years I spent out of the full-time workforce were years of incredible growth for me. I returned to work with a renewed sense of purpose, the ability to keep things in perspective and time management skills that I could only have dreamed of earlier in my career. In fact, I owe my current success to my career break.