May 1st, 2018

People take career breaks for a number of different reasons. Some take voluntary breaks to pursue schooling or to care for their children or other family members, while others have breaks forced on them due to illness, addiction, or disability. These breaks can be relatively short, or they can stretch on for 10, 15, or 20 years and beyond. But no matter the length or precise reason for the break, this group faces significant challenges when they do decide it’s time to go back to work. And successfully returning requires self-reflection, focus, and dedication.

If you’ve been out of the work force for an extended period and would like to return, here are five steps you can take to get the process headed in the right direction:

Step 1: Assess Your Situation

It’s important to figure out what you want to do before you start applying for jobs. Why? Because you need to know exactly what jobs to look for and – more importantly – how to talk about the type of position you’re looking for with people who may be in a position to help. Start by asking yourself how your interests and skills have or have not changed during your career break. If your interests have changed or your skills have eroded in your time away, you may need to sharpen your position by pursing certification programs or other education opportunities. Once you’ve defined your current position and where you want to go, you can more on to step 2.

Step 2: Reinvigorate Your Network

The best way to find new opportunities is by tapping into your existing professional network. But if you’ve been out of the workforce for several years, it’s likely you’ve lost touch with many of those important contacts. So how do you reinvigorate your network? Start by setting up a LinkedIn profile and then searching out and connecting with old contacts. You can also send emails or make phone calls with other important past colleagues. When you do make that initial contact, however, don’t start by asking for help finding a job. Instead, tell them that you’re preparing to get back into the workforce and would appreciate any advice on resources you can use to get reacquainted with the latest thinking in your targeted field. This gives people the opportunity to be helpful without feeling overly burdened.

Step 3: Volunteering Can Be an Asset

Many employers view volunteer experience to be just as valuable as professional experience. This is especially true if you’re volunteering on projects that line up with your career goals. If you’ve had a long break from paid work, consider volunteering for a project that will allow you to perform similar work as you would in the positions you want to apply for. This will allow you to show potential employers that you have timely and relevant experience that benefits them. And when you do begin to apply for job, make sure you include your volunteer experience as part of your resume.

Step 4: Assemble Your Assets and Do Your Research BEFORE You Apply

When you do find a job you’d like to pursue, begin by assembling assets like your resume and cover letter. For people with big gaps in their job history, it can be helpful to use a skills-based resume format rather than a strictly chronological work experience summary. This approach allows you to put your abilities on display, rather than your job history.

When you do get to the work history portion of your resume, change the section title to “professional experience” and include any volunteer work you’ve done during your career break. Talk about your volunteer roles the same way you would talk about your paid work, and be specific about your role and responsibilities.

When you’re ready to apply for an open position, take some time to do a little research by reviewing the company’s website, social media profiles, and Google search results. Use any key pieces of information you find to create a customized cover letter for every position you apply for. This may sound like a lot of work, but it will show your potential new employer that you took the time to research the position rather than submitting a generic application. Your chances of scoring an interview will increase dramatically.

Step 5: Control the Narrative

During an interview, you should expect the hiring manager to ask about your employment gap. The key here is to control the narrative and not allow the potential employer to fill in the gaps for themselves. Acknowledge the break and don’t make apologies for it. Talk instead about what you were doing during that break, and how you used the skills you’d bring to this position. Then, redirect the conversation towards specific anecdotes from your past work experience that applies to the open position.

Throughout the interview, it’s important to communicate that you’re not applying for the position on a whim. Instead, convey how excited you are to return to work and that you’ve been careful and thoughtful about the type of positions you’re now pursing. The right employer will recognize the value in hiring someone who’s motivated to work rather than someone who’s been working for 20 years and is applying because they have to.

A Coach Can Help

Returning to work after a break in employment can be long journey that doesn’t always progress in a straight line. And if you’re leaving benefits like SSI or SSDI behind, the journey can also be filled with anxiety and uncertainty. But there is help available. Pathways to Independence assists people who want to leave government benefits for full time work with one-on-one employment coaching, life advice, and benefit management assistance. If you’d like to learn more, you can reach us by phone at (503) 240-8794 or by filling out our contact page. We’ll be here to cheer you on as your return to the workforce and gain back your financial independence.