Articles > After a hiatus, forced to return to work

After a hiatus, forced to return to work
Globe & Mail, March 11, 2009

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

They are an unexpected consequence of the economic downturn: An increasing number of women who had hung up their professional togs, either permanently or temporarily, now find themselves having to dust off their resumes and are being forced to return to work.

Some women are married to former high rollers who lost their jobs or hefty bonuses; others have seen partners laid off in sectors hit hard, such as manufacturing and media. Still others are recently retired women who have discovered dwindling retirement incomes are not enough to live on.

Whatever their situation, they are among a growing group of women who have been out of the work force, some for many years, and now need to find their way back in.

There have always been women who have found themselves suddenly needing to produce an income as a result of unfortunate circumstances, such as a divorce or the death of a partner.

But with massive layoffs, women who didn't think they would be on the job search path are back in the market.

And they will encounter significant challenges. Not only are they facing one of the most inhospitable job markets in years, but many of these women may have rusty skills and outdated experience, have lost their sense of confidence and are ambivalent, if not resentful, about having to work.
And they are in competition with people who have more recent experience working or hunting for jobs.

If you find yourself having to dust off a stale resume, here are some tips:

EVALUATE YOUR READINESS

There's no point in embarking on a job search if you're not emotionally ready to break from your kids, have skills that aren't marketable or are angry about the unfairness of it all.

It might take up to six months, perhaps even longer, to come to terms with it and truly prepare yourself, never mind actually find work.

This might require going back to school, reigniting professional activities and networks, setting up appropriate daycare, or simply getting over simmering resentment or ambivalence.

At least you can take comfort in the fact that this isn't happening only to you. Also, remind yourself that going back to work may be just a temporary disruption of your life.

KNOW YOUR VALUE

You have to be able to articulate what you have to offer to an employer.

Conduct a ruthless inventory of your skills, abilities and achievements. Dig deeply into all arenas of your life, both past and present, and think broadly about your accomplishments. Raising funds for a community event or being on the board of a charity speak to special skills and talents.

If you have lost your confidence and think that all you are good at is chauffeuring kids, get input from your friends. Ask them: What are my five best traits? What are the five things I do best?

Another clue to your talents is the subjects on which people value your opinion: How to decorate a house? How to deal with a marital problem? How to kick-start a fund raiser?

Knowing your talents will help set the foundation for answering two key questions: What work would I be good at? And what kind of work should I pitch myself for?

It will also help to restore professional confidence that many women lose when they have been out of the work force for some time.

PRAISE YOURSELF

Forget modesty. Practise making statements like, "I'm really good at...; "I'm proud of what I accomplished at ...." This will not only bolster flagging confidence, but longer-term, it will help you to craft a powerful resume and present yourself successfully in interviews.

Rehearse in your head the nice things friends and others have said about you. Repeat your accomplishments to yourself daily. And when you are practising these positive self-statements to yourself, and later, when you will repeat them in a job interview, watch your voice. Don't end your statements with up-talk, which makes you sound like you don't really believe what you have just said or are looking for reassurance.

THINK ROLES, NOT INDUSTRIES

f your experience was garnered in an industry now under siege, look at how you can play the same role in other industries.

Focus on countercyclical industries, such as popularly priced cosmetics, cheap entertainment, essential services, industries benefiting from government dollars, or businesses that are profiting, or at least are less affected, by the downturn, such as more value-oriented brands and retailers, and food and hospitality providers.

THINK LIKE A RECRUITER

When writing your resume or preparing for an interview, imagine you are the recruiter. What skills, attributes, and experiences would you be looking for? Shape your story accordingly.

For example, if you are applying for a job with a professional services firm that has many younger workers, think about your own experience working with young people. Even if it was on a board and not in a job, it will be seen as an asset and should be highlighted.

SET REALISTIC CAREER GOALS

Unless your skills are tied to a sunset industry, a highly competitive job market is not the right time for making a significant career change.

You need to tie your value to proven skills and expertise; this is a time to push what you know. You may also need to park your ego and be prepared to take a job below what you think you are worth.

MINE YOUR NETWORK

Think broadly and deeply about your professional and personal contacts. Mothers often find the "mummy network" a great source of leads and support.
If they are personal contacts, give them a reason to want to help you that speaks to both your abilities and your financial predicament. Show them the skills you could bring to an employer.

Equally important, explain why you are re-entering the workplace. Your hard-luck story will resonate and give them a sense of urgency of the need to help you.

You may also want to consider this networking strategy: One job seeker I know sent an e-mail to all of her contacts with a subject line: Please be my eyes and ears for my job search. In the body, she briefly outlined what she was looking for and asked them to stay alert to potential opportunities. She generated more than 50 leads.

PICK THE RIGHT RESUME FORMAT

If you are applying for a job similar to one you only recently left, write a chronological resume that shows your career history in similar jobs.
But if you are applying for a job after a long career break, write a functional resume instead, which groups together your accomplishments and experiences under major headings, such as management; training design; project start-ups, and so on.

Since you've been out of the workplace for some time, you want a potential employer to first see your skills and accomplishments, rather than immediately flagging the fact you haven't been working for some years.
After you have described your accomplishments and experiences under major headings, summarize with a brief career history.

GET READY FOR THE INTERVIEW

You may need to sharpen your image and get a mini-makeover. This might, for example, mean getting a great hair cut, new eyeglasses, and modern accessories.

Solicit input from stylish professional friends, your hairdresser and adult kids. Read fashion magazines. And turn to expert advice, such as The Globe and Mail's Suitable column by Amy Verner, for tips on what to wear to work.

Don't be embarrassed to borrow clothes from friends. You want to feel good about yourself and up to date.

Research a potential employer. Be prepared to talk about your experiences in the context of challenges it may be facing.

Practice answering standard interview questions about your skills, best and worst attributes, and the nature of your accomplishments.
But don't over-rehearse. You want to come across as poised but not robotic.

BE REAL IN THE INTERVIEW

If you are nervous - and there is good reason to be if this is your first foray back into the workplace after several years - you don't have to completely fake it. Your interviewer is human, and wants to hire a human being, not an android.

For example, if you find yourself stumbling over an interview question, there is nothing wrong with saying something like, "Excuse me. Let me collect my thoughts for a second. I really want this job and I'm a bit nervous."

You've shown a bit of your personality. And equally important, you have communicated your enthusiasm for the job - both pluses for the employer.
Another trick if you're nervous: Comment on something personal, such as a picture on the interviewer's office wall, or his or her tie or purse. This will establish a personal connection right upfront, and also help put you at ease.

Be honest, but not devastatingly honest, if you are asked why you are returning to work. Don't give a blow-by-blow account of how much money you lost in the market or the long, angry story about how your husband was unfairly laid off.

Instead, say something like, "Well this was a bit earlier than I had planned to go back, but when I started to think about returning to work, I started to get very excited. I'm ready to dig my teeth into some professional challenges like," then summarize key job expectations, which is a soft sell for the job.

Going back to work in today's market, especially if you hadn't planned on it, may be challenging. But if you let go of your ambivalence and turn the page with the right attitude and approach, you may discover that work can be engaging.

It may not have been an intended part of your game plan for this life stage. But you can think of it as an unexpected and interesting detour.