Mind the Gap: Dealing with the Challenges of Re-entering the Workforce

“I haven’t worked for seven years and I want to resume my career but I’m afraid the only job I’ll get is a secretarial position.”  This is a common fear I hear from professionals who have been on a hiatus from work to attend to family or other pursuits and are ready to reenter the workforce in a meaningful and appropriate way.  Whether a person is capable and qualified to do the job is often overshadowed by mis-perceptions and the lack of a strong brand presence in the market, not to mention the lack of professional self-confidence.  Thus, I suggest, “Mind the Gap!”  –  yes, just as the signs in the London Underground warn passengers to take caution while crossing the gap between the train door and the station platform, re-entrants should use caution, but… don’t be afraid to board the train!

People around the world are grappling with this issue.  Last month I spoke at an international symposium on Women’s Career Transition and the Role of the University hosted by Japan Women’s University in Tokyo.  Japan, Korea and other countries realize that in order to have strong economies they will need to figure out how to lure the lost talent — mostly women, who have dropped out of the workforce — back to work.  Employers NEED good talent and this group represents a tremendous source of that talent!  However, for the re-entrant, it is often a struggle to get an employer’s attention and to prove that she is the best candidate for a job.  Sometimes a person can hop back on the train right where s/he got off, but often a circuitous route is required to get back on track.

I have observed that the biggest barrier in this process is the lack of professional self-confidence.  If you believe in yourself and present yourself professionally, those who have worked with you in the past will believe in you and not give “the gap” a second thought.  They will be able to be “agents” for you in making introductions and serving as conduits to companies and individuals that are of interest to you. Thus, part of “minding the gap” is to occasionally meet with ex-colleagues, get connected on LinkedIn with your entire network so that you can know who might be helpful to you and maintain (and even grow) your professional web.

Getting together with your old boss may sound daunting to you, but s/he will most likely see you in the same light as when you were working together.  Remember s/he hasn’t seen you in the carpool line or changing diapers, so your image is intact, as long as you can still talk the part.  Meeting with professionals will force you to stay/get current in your field.  And the discussions you have can continue to be rich if you keep up by reading and, perhaps doing related work as a volunteer.  It’s never too late to re-engage in this way … it will help you maintain or regain your self-confidence.

I worked with Mary*, a Darden alumna of the early 90’s, who had left her Area Finance Manager job with a large CPG company eleven years prior.  Her kids were now in middle school and she wanted to return to a similar type of work.  Answering advertisements just wasn’t working for her — of course not, what recruiter would choose to bring in a person who “hadn’t worked” in eleven years when there are 150 other candidates who are currently in similar jobs?!?   I encouraged Mary to change her strategy and re-engage with her old co-workers who undoubtedly had connections to other finance managers who worked in companies of interest.  Introductions, lunch meetings, informational interviews, and lots of networking finally led to some interviews.  Whew, it’s a lot of work and it takes confidence.

To have meaningful discussions, Mary needed to be able to describe what she wanted, how she was qualified, and what companies would be of interest to her.  She also needed to be able to provide evidence that she was still competent.  She had to brush up on her finance skills – so she took an online Excel course and volunteered to be the treasurer for a not-for-profit organization in town.  Mary realized that she still had “it” and could feel confident in professional conversations.  And… she bought herself some current professional clothes so she would look the part as well.  One of the interviews turned out to be successful – she started working for a small consulting company as a finance analyst on a part time basis at a couple of levels below her 2001 level.  She, of course, exceeded all the employer’s expectations, but there was no room for growth in the organization.  But now, with something relevant and current on her resume and a new sense of confidence as well as an expanded network, she was able to land a Finance Manager with the regional office of a large multinational corporation.  This was a circuitous route, but she was patient and persistent and, Mary is now back on track.

A lot of resources are available to help re-entrants.  Carol Fishman Cohen not only co-authored the book Back on the Career Track and co-founded iRelaunch with HBS classmate Vivian Steir Rabin, but she recently published an article in HBR about a study she did on  internships as a means of re-launching careers.  The article discusses how doing projects and internship-like work can help ease re-entry.

If you live within striking distance of Northern Virginia, consider attending the two part Re-entering the Workforce workshop I will be facilitating at the UVA/VT facility in Falls Church in February and March.  This is the eight edition of the seminar which helps alumni determine what they want and how to get it as a re-entrant.  For more information contact AlumniCareerServices@darden.virginia.edu.

Connie Dato English (MBA ’91), Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

* not her real name

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