After the Exit Ramp: Preparing for a Smooth Reentry Into the Workforce
For many women who take significant time off from their careers to raise a family, the prospect of reentering the workforce is daunting. They’re concerned their skills are no longer sharp and that technology has thoroughly transformed the position they once knew so well. They see that their peers have moved ahead and fear they may have to start over.
And, even if they’re confident in their abilities and have kept their skills current, they worry that hiring managers won’t give them a chance. But they shouldn't be.
For starters, they're part of a trend: More women are deciding to go back, and the rate has increased over recent years. According to an April 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of the population working or looking for work, for women with children under age 18, was 71.1 percent in 2017, up 0.6 percent from the previous year.
Second, there is help available, through community college programs and private programs like The Path Forward.
Two case studies
I coached two women who had taken time off to raise their children. Kathy Newman* had been the VP of marketing for a financial services organization. Natalie Cummings* had been a regional manager for a national retail chain. Both had left those jobs to raise a family. Both had fallen behind in terms of technology trends in the workplace.
That was certainly the predicament Kathy Newman faced. When she left her marketing job, social media and digital advertising had yet to dominate the marketing mix. But eight years later, when she wanted to return, Newman felt ill-prepared for the new marketing world.
To turn that around, she adopted a three-prong strategy: re-establish her professional network, obtain relevant training and pursue contract work. Newman also met with past colleagues to learn how the industry had changed and what new skills were required. At professional association meetings, she learned about cutting-edge marketing campaigns and absorbed others' advice about moving into the digital space.
She realized that her core knowledge was still relevant but also recognized what she had yet to learn about social and digital marketing.
To do that, Newman attended conferences, read articles, took online tutorials and attended classes on social media at a local university. She picked up the new skills quickly, but she needed to freshen her resume by adding more relevant work experience. With the gig economy in full swing, she took on freelance and part-time marketing jobs that strengthened her skills, created a track record of success and, most important, boosted her confidence.
Her strategy worked: After a year,Newman accepted a full-time position that matched her experience and skills.
Natalie Cummings, meanwhile, didn’t have the luxury of taking a year to prepare to return to the workforce. Her husband had been laid off and she needed a job "yesterday." She had worked in retail as a manager before taking four years off to raise her twin boys. So, she reached out to her former employer. The company, it turned out, was delighted to have her back -- but as a salesperson, not a manager -- and she was assured she’d move up rapidly once she proved herself.
Cummings, however, wasn't interested in starting over, and after a two-month job search secured an alternate position in management at another retail organization.
Accepting, and rejecting, "the penalty"
The financial pressure Cummings felt to find work quickly could have caused her to accept a lower-level position as a penalty for taking time off. But she was confident her skills were just as valuable as they had been four years ago.
If anything, Cumming’s time with her young family had sharpened many foundational work skills, from emotional intelligence and mediation to problem analysis and multitasking. Her time off had also fostered her resolve to find work that was meaningful, not just a job. She reasoned that time away from loved ones must be time well spent.
Begin with an honest examination of your feelings.
If, like Newman and Cummings, you want to reenter the workforce in a meaningful way, begin with an honest examination of your skills, passions and work style:
Review your past performance evaluations and ask people who know you well what they consider your greatest strengths. You will need to determine whether those skills are still in demand and what new skills you should acquire. If you are open to a new profession, a coach can offer assessment tools that match your skills to potential careers.
Think, too, about your passions: Recognize the things that you love to do so much that you could do them all day without feeling bored or exhausted. If you want to apply your skills in an area you’re passionate about, consider opportunities with organizations you admire and for causes that matter to you.
Determine the type of environment you could thrive in. Do you like a collaborative culture or are you more productive working alone? Do you prefer a boss who is hands-on or one who is more supervisory? Think about what you appreciated about prior work environments and what you would have changed.
Burnish your brand with a compelling resume and a profile posted on a professional social media site like LinkedIn. Many search firms use LinkedIn to source candidates, but it’s also a good tool for reconnecting with former colleagues and finding people you know at companies where you might want to work. Set up informational interviews with those professionals to learn more about their company and industry.
All this assessment and preparation can serve to build your confidence. In their book The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman noted that people who are confident are considered in a more positive light than those who are competent but lack confidence. When you believe in yourself, others will as well, paving the way for a smooth reentry into work that matters.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.