Every person in transition has their own unique set of attributes and circumstances that define the nature of the challenge they face in finding a new or better job. Some job seekers have hard-to-find skills and move quickly from one employment situation to another. Others experience a far more difficult journey, complicated by age, gender or ethnic prejudice. And, still others battle to reenter the workforce after an absence caused by a family or personal commitment. I call this last group, the re-beginners. They are growing in number and finding it ever harder to regain their careers.
Re-beginners are people who have put their careers on hold to care for elderly family members or to raise young children. They constitute one of the fastest growing segments of the workforce as women choose to have children later in life, men choose to be more engaged in the lives of their kids, and both choose to assist parents and other relatives who are now living longer. Their commitment, while noble, leaves a gaping hole in their resume that employers—despite their platitudes about family values—are loath to accept. If all other attributes are equal among a group of candidates (and often, even if they’re not), recruiters and hiring managers will always select the candidate with an unbroken work history.
But, why call these people re-beginners? Why not simply call them returners? I believe they’re re-beginners because that term is a more accurate description of their status. Coming back into the job market after a lengthy absence from the workplace (5 or more years) means they are essentially starting all over again. It would be nice if that were not so, but the reality is that the gap in work pushes them back to square one, not in terms of the experience they can offer an employer, but in terms of their perceived ability to contribute on-the-job. The key to success, therefore, is to find ways to change that perception.
If you’re a re-beginner, what can you do to close the gap—to improve your chances of being recognized as a high value prospective employee? Felicitously, there are several actions you can take that are likely to help. They fall into two categories:
• Those you should accomplish while you’re out of the workforce, and
• Those you can undertake while you’re actively looking for a job.
You’ll get the best results if you do both: prepare for your return to the workforce during the gap in your employment, even if that return is five or ten years ahead, and take the extra steps necessary to minimize the importance of the gap while you’re in transition. However, if the hole in your resume already exists, doing just those activities that can be accomplished during an active job search will still be helpful.
Re-Beginner Preparation During the Gap
• Keep yourself up-to-date in your field. Clearly, that’s a difficult task when you have to take time out from your day-to-day responsibilities to travel to an educational institution, so take your courses online instead. That way you can continue your professional/vocational development and do so whenever and wherever it’s convenient for you.
• Keep yourself connected. While face-to-face networking is always an effective way to stay in touch with your peers, it’s also time consuming and often inconvenient. A useful supplement, therefore, is online networking. You can connect with colleagues and former coworkers at sites run by your professional association, alumni organization and/or affinity group … and maintain those contacts sitting at home in your fuzzy slippers.
• Stay top of mind with former employers. A growing number of organizations are taking steps to stay connected to former employees, recognizing that they may want to return at some point in the future. Many host alumni groups on their corporate Web-sites, and if that’s the case with one or more of your former employers, sign up and take advantage of whatever online programs and activities they may offer.
Re-Beginner Preparation After the Gap
• Shift the allocation of time you devote to specific job search activities. Of course, you should use all of the methods that can help you find a new or better job, but focus on the one that is most likely to minimize the perceived disadvantage of your gap in employment: networking. Increase the number of people who know you and what you can do because their knowledge and connections are the best bridge across the gap.
• Take a course in your field. Taking the initiative to enroll in a development program (and adding that fact to your resume) provides several advantages. It strengthens your skill set while showing employers that you are determined to keep yourself current and to do so on your own nickel. No less important, it exposes you to faculty members and other students who could be helpful in your job search.
• Attend local meetings of professional associations and alumni groups. Be visible but not a vulture. Don’t be shy about telling others you are in transition, but don’t hand your resume to everyone you meet, either. Focus on establishing yourself as a bona fide member of your field and as someone with whom others would enjoy and value working.
• Consider taking a temporary or contract position. Many employers are now using these employment arrangements—they’re called temp-to-perm—to evaluate individuals for permanent positions. There’s lower risk for the employer so they are more inclined to give you a chance, and it’s a great way for you to show what you can do, despite the gap in your resume.
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to correcting employers’ and recruiters’ negative perception of a gap in employment. There are some practical steps you can take, however, to change the way they see you and your gap. Think of it as a re-beginning for your career, a way to make you and your potential contribution greater than the hole in your resume.