Re-Entering the Workforce After an Absence
A question we are asked frequently is "What do I do about gaps in my employment?". There are several reasons you may take a leave of absence from your job - to have children, care for a sick or elderly relative, serve time in the military, go back to school, or pursue world travel. If you have been out of the workforce for any length of time (particularly years versus months), you need to know how to address that when you are ready to return to the working world. Below are several suggestions to not only address gaps in employment, but ensure you minimize any challenges and are well-prepared to successfully land a new job.
Brush Up on Your Skills
If Windows XP or even Windows 7 is the most recent computer operating system you are familiar with, chances are good that you’ll need to get your computer skills up to date. The same goes for any job or industry-specific skills you may have had, like understanding how to use relevant applications or devices.
Since technology is constantly evolving, if you haven’t been employed for 2-3 years or more, expect that some of your skills may have become outdated. Even if you have only been unemployed for several months, your expertise may have become a bit rusty, which could put you behind other job candidates. Ensure that your skills are current by taking classes, reading books and instruction manuals, and researching the latest trends in your industry via trade magazines and websites. You may also want to pursue a certification to give your job candidacy a leg up. Taking these steps will greatly improve your chances of landing the job you desire.
Reassess Your Resume Presentation
If you have been out of the workforce for any substantial length of time, prospective employers will view that gap in your work experience as a red flag. However, by organizing your resume in a strategic way, you can downplay the impact that gap has on your job options. You’ll want to do the following:
- Mention any degrees or certifications earned or courses taken during your absence.
- Emphasize the skills you have and continue to hone, including any new skills you picked up during your absence (for example, caring for terminally ill persons or home-schooling children). You may want to list your skills above your work experience on the resume so the hiring manager sees them before your experience gap.
- Include any volunteer work you took on, even if it lasted only a few months. Showing an employer that you led a community project or served as President of the PTA demonstrates transferable leadership skills, while being part of a team that constructed a house for Habitat for Humanity shows you are a team player with an understanding of home building and the construction industry. Your volunteer experiences can help you develop and demonstrate the communication, collaboration and adaptability skills that are important to employers.
- Highlight accomplishments before and during your absence, showing how they are relevant to the job you seek. Activities like leading an Army Reserves squadron through an intense drill, climbing Mount Everest, or turning a hobby into a profitable side business will be of interest to employers, as these undertakings show that you are well-rounded.
Because the gap in your work experience will still be evident, you will want to address it rather than try to hide or ignore it. Mention in your cover letter and during the interview how much time you took off and why, but also convey your enthusiasm about returning to work. It’s important to be up front about the employment gap (but without dwelling on it) and explain how you have been using that time to take classes, get involved in your community, keep your skills current and maintain professional and personal growth. If you were serving in the military, it is appropriate to include that time in your work experience; making sure to bullet point the jobs and projects you took on while stationed or deployed.
Finding a job after an absence from the workforce can come down to who you know as much as what you know. Let everyone in your circle know - including family, friends and acquaintances at the gym, at playgroups, in your classes, etc. that you are planning to return to work. If you weren’t already staying in touch with former co-workers and colleagues, you’ll want to reach out and re-engage with them. Networking will help to expose job opportunities, get introductions to hiring managers and build a list of references.
Here’s how to make networking work for you:
- Consider joining the local chapter of your industry’s professional association (if you are not a member already) and attend their meetings. In addition to networking opportunities, professional groups offer workshops and seminars that may help you re-build skills and get re-educated on what professionals in the field are currently doing.
- Look into networking events hosted by your local Chamber of Commerce, Business Network International (BNI) chapter, church or civic groups and attend as many of these events as possible. You never know who you might meet.
- Get in touch with the Alumni Association connected to the school(s) you graduated from and find out what events they host that may be networking opportunities. Check out the school’s alumni directory to see who you might want to reach out or get introduced to for help finding openings or getting an interview.
- Become active on LinkedIn, the best social networking website for professionals looking for jobs or connections to hiring managers. In recent years, LinkedIn has become a heavily relied-upon recruitment source for employers. If you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, you’ll want to set one up and start forming connections with people you know and the people they know. You can also use LinkedIn to message people to make or request an introduction or even invite them to meet for coffee. Lastly, there are many relevant professional groups on LinkedIn who engage in discussions about the field and the technologies they use, as well as who’s hiring.
Get in Some Practice Interviews
If it’s been a long time since your last job search, then you probably haven't been on a job interview in a while. Get prepared by researching typical job interview questions and develop your answers. Then, ask family members or friends to conduct mock interviews with you. If you have a friend or relative who is in human resources, ask them if they would be willing to coach you. You should be prepared for phone or Skype interviews as well as in-person interviews.
Make sure the answers you prepare for potential interview questions are thorough yet concise and take no more than a minute or so to convey. You might even want to think about preparing an “elevator pitch” in which you put a positive spin on your work absence. Your pitch could say something like: “I’m an accomplished sales professional with nine years of experience and awards for exceeding sales goals. I took the last several years off to raise my kids (or travel or take care of a sick relative) and now I’m looking forward to rejoining the workforce.” Then, you could briefly state your previous jobs and describe the type of position you are looking for now.
Try Volunteering or a Temporary Job
As you start planning and preparing to return to the workforce, taking on a volunteer or temporary job, particularly one that is professionally-oriented and related to your field, can help you regain your level of expertise in important areas. Depending on your career field and industry, consider contacting a local business, hospital or school to offer your services. If you are in a more technical field, target the skills you would like to rebuild. For example, if you want to brush up on your computer programming skills, volunteer to build a website for a startup, church or non-profit. If you want to ramp up your knowledge of accounting applications, find a business owner who needs a bookkeeper.
Volunteer and temporary jobs are much easier to get while you’re looking for a full-time position, and can include resume-boosting activities that impact how your work experience appears. They are also an opportunity to become acquainted with people who can become part of your network and serve as more recent references. These interim activities are ideal for building confidence and easing back into the full-time working world.
Consider Starting a Business
If your line of work is a service-oriented one in which you can more easily find customers/clients than an employer, consider launching an interim or side home business. This could present an opportunity to start earning an income, and with little to no start-up costs. Your customers/clients would not be as concerned about your job history as an employer would - they only want to know that you can help them. This experience can help boost your resume and prove to prospective employers that you have tenacity and are willing to take the initiative.
Get to Know the Current Job Search Landscape
The job market is always changing, but how you conduct a job search is also constantly evolving. If it’s been 10 years or more since your last job search, be aware that current job search practices may be dramatically different. Everything is done electronically now - job seekers go to employers’ or job search websites like Indeed.com to find job openings, and resumes are submitted via email or a link in the job listing.
Searching for a job is rarely easy for anyone, and it’s naturally more of a challenge for professionals who have been out of the workforce for a while. As you prepare your return, being aware of the possible challenges and knowing how to overcome them will help give you the courage and confidence to keep moving forward. By taking the recommended steps outlined above, you can help ease your transition back to the working world and improve your chances of getting a job offer.
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Writing a Resume When You Haven't Worked for Years
Preparing for Re-Entry: Overcoming Obstacles in the Workplace