June 9, 2012
Getting Back in the Game
Tips for Returning to Work After a Break
In a down job market where layoffs persist and contract work has dwindled, job seekers may find themselves struggling to explain employment gaps to hiring managers.
It's become a source of anxiety to be sure.
At a recent resume event hosted by UW Professional & Continuing Education, an attendee who had taken 16 years off work to care for her developmentally delayed son wondered how employers would perceive her job history.
Others in attendance had the same concerns.
Natalie Singer is a careers blogger at NWJobs.com
"There's a lot of talk, or paranoia, over the career gap being glaringly obvious on someone’s resume," says Natalie Singer, who blogs about workplace issues, work-life balance and self-employment for NWjobs.com. "And actually, a lot of that paranoia is unfounded."
In a recent interview with UW Professional & Continuing Education, Singer helped separate fact from fiction and explained how job seekers can use an employment gap to their advantage.
Define Your Story
While some experts suggest explaining the circumstances of your employment gap in a cover letter, that approach may be unnecessary.
If the break in your job history spans less than five years, you may not need to draw attention to it at all, Singer said.
The bigger concern should be framing yourself to a potential employer and maximizing the benefits that you might have gained during your time off from work.
"You’re not going to tell an employer, 'I was laid off four years ago and I’ve been depressed on the couch ever since,'" Singer said.
Those who take a step away from full-time employment often explore entrepreneurial avenues. They volunteer, or take freelance projects. If this sounds like you, Singer suggests highlighting all of these experiences when marketing yourself to potential employers.
Plan Your Return Strategically
Don't drop off the face of the earth if you leave a job in a field you care about. Join industry organizations or maintain your memberships. Foster relationships with key contacts.
If there are glaring deficiencies in your skill set, address them head-on with professional development like a certificate program or a workshop.
Build your online presence and familiarize yourself with social media, an avenue that about half of recruiters use to find talent. The sooner the better.
"Everyone knows when someone is coming back into the workforce and is frantically trying to get LinkedIn connections," Singer said. "You want to do that ahead of time and do so at a steady pace."
If you're a creative type with writing or art samples to show off, consider launching a personal website or online portfolio. There are plenty of free (or cheap) platforms out there.
"Frankly, hiring managers in many companies expect you to have some kind of online presence and identity, a home they can go to and learn more about you," Singer said.
Network Your Way Out of a Work Gap
The mere sight of the word networking is enough to send a shiver down the spine of some job seekers. It can be a scary proposition.
But the fact is, 70 to 80 percent of job openings are unlisted and accessible only by word-of-mouth.
A common misconception is that networking is nothing more than asking people to get you a job, Singer says. But it’s more than that.
"You are asking people to connect you with other people and organizations that might need you and benefit from you," Singer said. "You’re not asking them to find you a job. You’re going to find yourself a job. You have to network. You have to put every feeler out there."
Singer recounts the story of a friend with a master's degree who took seven years off to raise two children. Once she was ready to work again, she asked everyone if they knew of someone working in the nonprofit sector.
She would then email those contacts and ask if she could take them out to coffee for 20 minutes to hear about the latest developments in the field.
"She would not say, 'I'm looking for a job and so and so said you could help me.' Because that's really assumptive and that puts people off," Singer said. "She said, 'Can I buy you coffee and hear what you think about the industry right now?' That flatters people because that’s asking people to utilize their expertise."
After her chats, she would thank her new contacts and ask if they could provide the names of five more people in the field, as well as what organizations they worked for.
It took six months and a lot of coffee swigging, but her hard work paid off.
"Getting back into an industry is a full-time job and you have to treat it that way," Singer said. "If you're ready to get back to work, then you're ready to put as much effort into finding a job as you will when you get a job working."
Picking the Right Gig
After an extended break, it might be tempting to accept the first offer that comes your way. Or to take a job that, while worthy of your time, is a junior-level position.
Knowing what type of job to take depends on how urgently you need that first paycheck, Singer says.
Competition for some jobs is so fierce that seasoned professionals are resorting to unpaid internships to get back in the field.
That's why Singer suggests being open to positions that may not seem as prestigious as ones you might have previously held. Just make sure the opportunity can lead to bigger and better things in your industry.
Say your goal is to work as a content editor at a communications agency, Singer says. You probably shouldn't take a job at Nordstrom selling dresses.
"You're not going to go from retail sales clerk to that job you feel like you’re qualified for or almost qualified for," Singer said. "I would caution someone from taking that."
Explaining the Gap
If you do decide to bring up your employment gap with an interviewer, channel your inner-public relations whiz and put a positive spin on your story.
An approach that Singer suggests is as simple as: "I was fortunate enough to take a step out of my industry in 2008 and I broadened my range of experiences by doing X, Y and Z during that time."
If you left your last job voluntarily, keep it simple: "I took a step out of my job to take care of a family member."
There's no need to elaborate.
"Most employers are not going to dock an applicant for a [shorter] gap," Singer said. "They’re much more concerned with how good of a fit you're going to be for this job and what kind of experience and skills you bring to the table."
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