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Career breaks are increasingly common, with workers voluntarily taking time out from employment for a multitude of reasons. While a workplace hiatus may traditionally be associated with raising children, you might find yourself seeking respite from office life to care for aging parents, pursue professional growth, gain more education, explore personal development, or manage a moving family as a military spouse.
While it’s easy to think of reasons to temporarily exit the workforce, breaking back into it can be more challenging. It can be difficult to pick up where you left off. Depending on the amount of time you took off, you may find that your skills are no longer current, and that you have to take a step back on the career track before you can move forward again.
“One should approach the task of resuming your career after taking time off the same way an athlete might approach a marathon after not running for several years,” says Clara Lippert Glenn, president and CEO of The Oxford Princeton Programme. “Without proper training and preparation, running a marathon would be exceedingly difficult and most likely result in a complete failure. The same is true when resuming your career.”
To help ease the transition, consider these five ways to make reentering the workforce a little easier, no matter the reason you’ve taken a break:
1. Prove How You’ve Stayed Current
You haven’t been doing the same thing that you’d be doing on the job, but chances are, you’ve developed some relevant skills during your time out of the office. Find ways to apply your projects outside of work back to your industry, and prepare specific examples for interviews to show why this is so.
Workplace author and columnist Anita Bruzzese notes that if you’re creative, you can use your time off to your advantage. “Maybe you took time off to research and write a book, or to travel,” says Bruzzese. “Come up with one or two examples or stories of how your experiences taught you something valuable. Show the people you connect with that you continued to learn and grow even while not working a traditional job.”
“As long as you’re relating what you did when you were unemployed with the types of skills that employers are looking for, it will be a positive thing to have on your resume,” adds Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs.
As an added bonus, if you can spend some time on your career break building new skills that relate directly to your field, this industry-specific training can help give you a leg up over other career pausers. “In order to reenter the workforce, job seekers must prove how they have stayed current with their industry and profession,” says Marc DeBoer, president of A Better Interview. “This can be done through seminars, webinars, books, networking, educational classes, certifications, etc. In addition to this, they need to prove to the interviewer that their passion never diminished. They must prove through past examples why they are excited to reenter the workforce and why their passion for the job is bigger than anyone else’s!”
2. Stay Visible Through Social Media
If you’ve been out of the workforce a while, it’s important to keep in mind that this is not yesterday’s job market. Technology is now perhaps as important in job networking and job search as face-to-face interactions. In some ways, that can benefit the returning job seeker, even if you don’t feel that tech savvy. Having online options to give yourself a professional presence means that you don’t have to be everywhere at once—you can stay on your industry’s radar screen while still in your bathrobe and slippers.
Donna M. Lubrano, adjunct faculty in marketing and management at Newbury College, suggests that although you won’t have the same “star power” reentering as you had when you were full time, facilitating a strong network through social media can help you maintain valuable connections.
“Make sure you stay visible in your area of expertise,” says Lubrano. “Even if you are caring for a child or elderly parent, using online technology is a sure-fire way to stay visible to your colleagues and potential future employers. Using LinkedIn and blogging helps make your presence known and felt. Offer to do one-one consulting or mentoring for those entering your field. Teach an online class. These will help you maintain your brand as other life changes take up the majority of your time.”
3. Make Plans for Reentry
Though it may be tough to think about going back to work while you’re still on your break and focused on other things, planning ahead for your return to work can help ensure the transition goes more smoothly.
Christy Palfy, recruiting manager for Progressive Insurance, recommends etching out 30 minutes a day (or whatever amount of time you can spare) to specifically focus on issues related to your career return. “Put yourself back into that mindset and treat job hunting as a top priority in your schedule,” says Palfy. “It’s a non-threatening way to reintroduce yourself to the business side of your life.”
4. Do Interview Prep
One way you can use your planning time is to freshen your interviewing skills. Palfy suggests planning for future interviews by focusing on the following:
Start the convo. Figure out how you’ll want to start the conversation and tell your story. Don’t sabotage yourself—your time at home isn’t the recruiter or the hiring manager’s focus, so don’t make it yours. Redirect to the fact that you’re enthusiastic and passionate to bring fresh ideas and a new perspective.
Don’t dwell on it. Brainstorm ways to avoid dwelling on the fact that you’re reentering the workforce. Since you don’t want to state that more than once, be prepared to shift the conversation to what you can do to help the company.
Know your skills. Since you’ll want to place the focus on your skill set, figure out in advance which skills you plan to share with specific employers. Tailor your responses to particular jobs to show how you can accomplish goals and company initiatives.
Prepare your elevator speech. When someone asks you “What do you want to do?” be ready with an answer. Spend time practicing it before you need it—write it on a note card and stick it in your purse if you need to.
5. Stay Tethered
Another way to plan for your reentry is to avoid unplugging completely from your professional life even while taking a career break. Mom Corps CEO Allison O’Kelly advises professionals to never “fully exit” the workforce if they plan on returning someday.
“It is too challenging to overcome the employment gap, especially in today’s economic environment,” says O’Kelly. “Instead, always keep reentry in mind and look for opportunities for contract or freelance work during your hiatus—even if it is a few hours a month. It’s a even a good idea to ask your employer if there are such opportunities at your current job, as they may welcome retaining your experience and expertise.”