Back In Business: Re-Entering the Workforce After Taking Time Off

You’ve made the big decision: You’re going back to work. Cue a slew of questions:

  • Where should you start with the job hunt?

  • Are your skills still up to snuff?

  • Do you have a network of people that can help you?

  • Do you even know what you want to do now?

Whether you took time off to start a family, overcome an illness, help out a family member, or simply recharge, jumping back into the workforce can be an overwhelming experience.

Inspired by her struggle to overcome an 8-year resume gapJennifer Gefsky co-founded Après, a company that specializes in connecting employers with candidates who want to get back into the workplace. We spoke with her and several other professionals who have completed — or are currently going through — a similar career transition. Here’s their advice:

What To Do Once You’ve Left the Workforce

Maintain Your Network

While you may not think about the value of your network when you first leave the workforce (and especially not if it’s due to an urgent or personal matter), it can be your single biggest asset when you’re ready to re-enter. In fact, the majority of the candidates we spoke to expressed how they wished they had kept in touch with their network during their time off.

“One of my biggest challenges was a lack of professional network to help identify opportunities and connect me with other people in my field,” explains Gillian Kruse, a cancer survivor who is now back at work after taking time off for her treatment. Having even one or a few people you can lean on who can give you advice about certain companies and serve as a referral can go a long way in your job search.

Start by identifying a few key people in your network who you trust, are well connected, and are likely to help you out. Perhaps it’s an old coworker or boss, a friend you volunteer with on the weekends, or a colleague in the industry who has helped you out in the past. Aim to keep in touch every few months, whether it’s meeting up for coffee, sending them an email, or simply keeping in touch on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Be top of mind to them and show them that you care about your relationship. When possible, send opportunities their way or offer to connect them to others in your network to return the favor. Then, when you’re ready to re-enter the workforce, you can feel comfortable reaching out to them for guidance and referrals.

Keep Your Skills Up-to-Date

Depending on how long you’ve been out of the office, you may need to brush up on some skills or reacquaint yourself with the latest trends in the industry. Especially in more technical industries and roles where things change fast, it’s important you try to keep pace or make a plan to re-educate yourself before entering the workforce. “If you’re educated and smart, even if you take time off, you will be able to get back up to speed quickly,” Jennifer says. So how can you go about keeping your skills current?

Local programs offered by intelligent.ly, Startup Institute, edX, and General Assembly provide training on a number of practical business topics, from marketing to engineering to design and more. Some courses can be taken online, while others are intensive on-site programs, so depending on your schedule, you can determine which works best for you. You can also spend time reading trade publications, talking with others in your field, or attending industry conferences to get the juices flowing again.

A commitment to ongoing education will say a lot about you as a candidate, and bolster your chances against the competition. “Anytime you establish yourself as someone who is committed to learning and polishing your skills, that sends a message to employers that you’re serious,” says Jennifer.

What To Do Once You’re Ready to Re-Enter the Workforce

Take Time to Define Your Requirements

Re-entering the workforce takes a little more planning than a traditional job search, especially if you’ve been out for a while. That’s why it’s important to spend some time considering what it is you’re looking for in a job. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Do you want to go back into the same industry, or are you looking to break into a new one?

  • Are you looking for the same role you held previously, or do you need to take a step down to re-acclimate?

  • Do you want a full-time or part-time job?

  • How much schedule flexibility do you need?

  • Will you need or want to work remotely?

Once you’ve defined which sector(s), role(s) and other requirements you’re looking for, you can narrow in on the right opportunities for you. We spoke to Morgan B., a new mom and current VP of Marketing who requested to stay anonymous, who reports, “When I was looking for a role, I was pickier than I was prior to motherhood because it had to be a company, role, and team that made it worth my while to be away from my daughter.” She adds, “This posed a challenge in the search process, but ultimately helped me focus on the kind of job that would inspire me every single day.”

While narrowing what you consider a good prospect may lengthen the job search process, it’s worth the extra time  to choose something that empowers you to be your best.

Be Confident in Your Value

It’s common to feel less-than-confident in your skillset if you haven’t exercised it in quite some time. “When you’re removed from the workforce for so long, it’s hard to bring yourself back and be confident in your value,” explains Jennifer.

Whether you’re feeling rusty on your skills or behind on technology, it can help to identify what you are confident about. If you’ve taken time off to build a family, for example, chances are you have some pretty great organization, management, and communication skills by now! Or if you took time off to focus on a passion project, think about the skills you gained by doing that.

Then, when you begin interviewing with different companies, you can determine which skillsets and experiences are most closely matched to each job so that it’s clear you are well qualified for the position, and perhaps bring a little extra to the table, too.

Embrace the Journey

Whether you’ve been out of the workforce or not, finding a job takes time, so it’s important to recognize that it’s a journey. “You don’t just decide one day that you’re going to return to the workforce and submit your resume and be done with it,” says Jennifer. “The longer you’ve been out of the workforce, the longer it will take to find the right job,” she explains. And that’s okay.

Going into the process with the mindset that it may take months can help you to set realistic expectations for yourself. 

Don’t Lie About the Gap

Worried what employers will think about the gap in your resume? The candidates we spoke to who have gone through the process say it’s not always as big of an issue as you might imagine. “I was actually pleasantly surprised by the understanding and support others have shown me with regard to my decision to take time off,” explains Whitney Naquin, an HR generalist who is now in the process of getting back into the workforce after having two children.

What’s perhaps most important is being honest about the gap. “Employers today understand that people take career breaks, so if it comes up during the interview process, simply be clear that it happened and move on,” advises Jennifer. What matters more than the gap is that, “You’re knowledgeable about the company, enthusiastic about the position and can bring value to the workplace,” she adds. Don’t feel like you need to be overly apologetic; simply explain why you took the time off, and then refocus the conversation on what interests you about the role and what skills you bring to the table.

Be Okay With Rejection

No one likes to be rejected, but it’s important that candidates who are returning to the workforce come to terms with it. “The truth is you are going to get rejected, so once you get your head around that, it makes the whole process a lot easier,” advises Jennifer. Even people without career gaps face rejection, so the faster you can come to terms with the reality of the job market, the faster you can refocus on finding the right fit.

Another way to look at rejection is as a learning opportunity. Use the information you gather from the process at one company to improve your approach with the next company. “To know you’re going to get rejected and persevere anyway is an endearing quality,” Jennifer remarks. Remember, it’s a journey full of ups and downs, but stay focused on your goals, and you will find the right opportunity to fit your unique requirements.

Parting Words

Whether you are just embarking on your job search or have been at it for quite some time, know that you can pave a path to the perfect job.  Yes, it requires perseverance, confidence, and patience, but in the end you will find the right opportunity that gives you the work-life balance you seek and the fulfillment you desire. Leaning on your network, friends, and family, as well as the communities that Après and ReferralMob have fostered can keep you motivated and on-track to get there.