In an ideal world, we could leave and enter the workforce according to our own schedules. For some people, that might mean dropping out for a year or two – or longer – after the birth of a child. For others, it might mean taking an extended leave to care for parents in declining health. It might also mean being able to travel around the world for six months, knowing you can return to your full-time employment without penalty.
The reality, though, is that it can be very difficult to reenter the workforce after a break. A survey from the Center for Work-Life Policy suggests that only four in ten mothers who stop working eventually return to full-time work. Reasons include bias against stay-at-home moms, the difficulty of getting up to date after being away from a profession, and, of course, a highly competitive labor market.
Consider these real world examples:
- Patty Bonito, 45, a former technical writer, spent over five years looking for a full-time job after temporarily leaving the workforce when her family relocated to Durham, North Carolina. “I never would have left my job if I knew how hard it was going to be,” she says. She eventually gave up her search, and is now studying to become a middle school teacher, a career she has long wanted to pursue.
- Bonnie Galus, 50, stopped working about a year after the birth of her first child, now 21. Today, the mother of three says she’s ready to work again, but, she adds, “It’s a struggle to know where to begin.” She has responded to several online job postings, but has not yet received any responses. Says Galus, “The biggest hurdle, I think, is the lack of current work experience… I worked for five years in computer programming prior to having children. Since then, I have done a lot of volunteer work at my kids’ schools, which included being the treasurer for our local high school’s music booster group in the last year. However, I don’t have any current work experience.”
In addition to the challenge of finding a job, Galus says she also imagines that the shift back to working for someone else will be difficult for her. “Essentially, when you stay home to care for your family, you become a self-employed individual; you set your own hours, priorities and you make your own choices each day. So it is a huge transition to think of being committed to days, hours and tasks determined by someone else.”
Galus asks, “I am 50, and I still have a lot to offer. But how do you convey this to an employer?”
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Good question. It’s not easy, but career experts have some recommendations. The first step, says workplace expert Alexandra Levit, is to decide exactly what you want, including whether you want to work full or part-time and return to your former field or try something new, and why. “Too often people don’t have answers to these questions, so their approach is scattered. It makes you look unfocused and could get you into a [job] situation you don’t want to be in,” she says.
In fact, says Vivian Steir Rabin, coauthor of Back On the Career Track and cofounder of the company iRelaunch, she’s heard of instances where people are so ambivalent about returning to the workforce that they break down and cry during job interviews. Even if the situation doesn’t get that bad, Rabin says employers usually sense when your heart doesn’t want to be there. In her book and through iRelaunch programs (www.irelaunch.com), she teaches mothers who want to rejoin the workforce to learn to be confident about the decisions they made and then to assess all of their options and pursue a career that fits into their current lifestyle and interests.
Networking is also essential, says Rabin. "Relaunchers are most likely to get a job through someone they know or through someone introduced to them by someone they know,” she says. Rabin recommends using websites such as www.linkedin.com to make connections, even with colleagues from decades ago. Volunteer groups, churches, alumni associations and other groups can also help.
Sometimes, part of the solution might include returning to school, as in Bonito’s case. But Levit warns not to use education as a crutch. “A lot of times people use additional education as a vehicle to move forward because they’re comfortable with school,” she says. But a new degree can be very expensive, and not all fields are hiring. Levit, who offers a free webinar on reinventing yourself with the purchase of her book, New Job, New You, suggests talking with people in the field first to make sure the extra coursework will pay off.
Have you thought about reentering the workforce, or have you done so successfully? Please share your story and tips.