Back to work after extended time out

How to successfully get back into it

For many reasons women who initially choose to or have needed to stay at home after having kids find themselves wanting to re-enter the workforce and pick up their careers or start a whole new one several years later, for example when the kids are all at school.

Re-entering the workforce after a long time out can obviously present many problems and concerns for women, such as lack of confidence and self-belief and worries about coping with the parenting and work juggle. It’s hard enough going back to work after the usual 6-12 months maternity leave, let alone when you’ve been out for 3, 4 or more years.

Research from the UK in 2012 showed that women returning to work as new mothers were likely to take jobs they were overqualified for and under utilised in because low occupational, low paid areas offer the best deal in terms of part-time and flexible work.

The result is a talented pool of women working well beneath their career ladder capability. And that’s OK, as long as you’re happy with that situation.

Our survey revealed that 53% of women said their careers were less important and less of a priority after having kids, and that’s pretty normal, although it doesn’t mean that you don’t want to progress. However, the stigma of being a mother, and worse, a mother who has been out of the loop for a long time, can often be or at least seem like a huge barrier to overcome.

The main things you must be absolutely sure of when tackling the return to work is that you want to do it and for the right reasons. There’s nothing more unappealing to a potential employer than someone who’s a bit non-committal or unsure. It will lead to very awkward interviews and unlikely to lead to a job.

The other thing to remember is to assess the jobs you want to do, can do and would ultimately be happy in. You don’t want to find yourself talking your way into a job you don’t really want because you’re so desperate to get anything. You will be miserable in a very short time so you may as well try to get it right.

Being sure of your relevance for a job is half the battle in interviews. You come across as being much more capable and confident when you’re not trying to convince yourself at the same time as an employer!

Use an agency. They can quickly assess your skills and help you rework your CV to make the most of your potential. They also already have the ears of the employers. It’s much easier for them to argue your suitability for a job, pitch you properly and explain that despite having had some time out, you are still a very valid candidate.

Holly Whale, former recruitment consultant, now personal organizer is a great example of someone who both understands going back to work from an employer’s perspective and also about retraining and going back to work as a mother.

“How long is too long is a bit like asking: “how long is a piece of string”, says Holly. “As a female recruitment consultant with my own kids, I am probably more lenient than most. A male recruitment consultant working in a cut-throat industry such as advertising or banking would most likely take a different view”.

Holly believes it also depends on the level of the role. For example, one would expect that a woman at a reasonably high level in, say, finance, would not have too much time off work.

“Often these candidates go back after only a few months and work between kids with a full-time nanny at home. With this level of candidate, I would say that after two years, it would start to get tricky to explain the absence in the workplace: 18 months to two years would most likely be a maximum. In some of the ‘softer’ industries like marketing and PR, a four-year break wouldn’t be unacceptable”, Holly believes.

These days the larger companies are getting more and more family-friendly. Existing employees who’ve worked there for some time before having kids have a high chance of being given a flexible role (e.g. four days a week) on returning from maternity leave.

There is a high success rate in this case in terms of settling back in, because she is already used to the company and the role. Holly Whale says she has heard plenty of horror stories about mums starting a new role part-time or job sharing and finding it really tough.

“In my experience, she says, the majority of women change tack after having a baby. They either take a big chunk of time off and then try to go back to the same industry, but part-time and with less responsibility, or they actually just change careers altogether, like I did”.

Return to Work website MyFuture has some great advice for women returning to work after babies including some of the following:

Take the first steps, which include:

  • Taking stock of skills you have acquired while you’ve been a stay at home mum, e.g. organisation, planning and multi-tasking. There is no one on the planet more adept at multi-tasking than a mum!
  • Taking time to update your skills or qualifications – e.g. checking your computer program knowledge is up-to-date, updating any professional or industry qualifications, exams or tests
  • Tackling the issue of child care and working out arrangements for your children on a daily basis, after school, if they’re sick, during the holidays
  • Thinking about your realistic abilities to commit to work and how you will juggle work and parenting, practically. Talk to your working mother friends and get their advice on how to manage it successfully.

Know what you want in a job. Are you looking for:

  • Full-time or part-time work
  • Paid employment or work in the voluntary sector
  • Work in a familiar field or in a new area
  • The opportunity to retrain?

Is your long-term plan realistic and achievable? Are you able to go for your ultimate job now, or should you start off with something easier, just to prove to yourself that you can land a job and cope with working life?

Take a look at your skills. What skills do you have?
What work can you do now, given your current skills? Skills are activities that you can do right now. The average person has between 500 and 800 skills. You will need to identify only 5–10 skills for an employer. You might need to re-package your existing skills to make them marketable.

  • Job-specific skills are skills required to complete a job related activity like cleaning, computer programming or record keeping. These are also called ‘hard’ skills.
  • Self-management skills are those that are required in almost all jobs. These ‘soft’ skills include being punctual, dependable, independent and flexible.

Are you looking for a completely new career? What could that be?
For this you’ll need to have assessed your own values, interests, strengths, weaknesses, accomplishments, personal resources, and goals. You will also need to research and understand as much as you can about your particular chosen area, so that you can find out what work opportunities are available to you, and what you have to do to find a job doing the work you want to do. To do this you can read about it, attend seminars, enrol in courses, network and apply for work experience.

Set realistic career goals if you want the best chance of getting a job and doing well. Don’t set your sights too high. You may quickly find yourself out of your depth and miserable.

Set target dates, too, so that you’ve got something to look forward to at a given time. On average, short-term goals should be achievable within about a year, medium-term goals within three years and long-term goals within five years.

When setting your goals, note down everything you will need to do to achieve each goal. Your short-term goals will include jobs that you can take on now, given your current level of skills.

Is your next job a survival job, an entry-level job, a transitional or a dream job?
This is a very personal judgment; one person’s survival job may be another’s ultimate dream. But here is a rough guide to the definitions:

  • Survival jobs are not even in the career field you’re interested in, but they’re useful for immediate short-term employment. They earn you money while you study or train or look for a better job. Aim to move away from a survival job quickly, on towards a job that interests and challenges you: your dream job.
  • Entry-level jobs allow you to begin a career path within your career field. The level at which you enter a career field depends on your experience and education, and on the state of the industry and the local job market. All industries offer entry-level positions.
  • Transitional jobs move you from an entry-level job towards your dream job. These take you a step further in your field of interest and teach you the skills you need for your dream job.
  • Dream jobs give you a sense of fulfillment. They utilise your gifts and talents rather than your skills, and they align with your passions and values.

All this seems rather daunting in itself. It doesn’t have to be if you’re realistic, certain, dedicated and honest about your abilities and what you want. Ask yourself the following questions. You need to be able to answer these to have the best chance in an interview:

  • Can I do the job?
  • Am I motivated to do the job?
  • Do I present myself as being dependable?
  • Do I fit the image and attitude the company is looking for?
  • Am I eager to learn and extend my skills?

If you can answer all these questions, and present yourself confidently, but not over-confidently, then chances are you’ll be just as much in the running as the next person, if not more so.

Good luck.

mums@work | 22.07.13
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