Maybe you took time out from your career to raise a family or care for an elderly parent. Maybe you wanted to travel, or for whatever reason were unable to commit to a full time position.
It can be a daunting prospect returning to the workplace after an extended career break, but according to Anne-Marie Taylor of Career Returners, companies are starting to turn to those who have taken time out to fill vital talent gaps.
Here’s how to rebuild your confidence and sharpen your skills to get back out there.
What are the main reasons for extended workplace leave of absence for women? Is it largely family related?
Yes, mostly women leave the workplace for family reasons, generally to spend time with young children. However, both men and women also leave the workforce to care for elderly parents, or because of illness, or to travel or perhaps to pursue a personal hobby.
What do you find are the main barriers for women wishing to return?
There are many barriers, but happily all of them are very surmountable. One of the main barriers for women in particular is the loss of confidence from being out of the workforce for an extended period. I’ve heard many variations along the lines “I was a Marketing Manager previously but I wouldn’t be comfortable to go back in at that level … I’ll apply for a Marketing Assistant job instead.” As a result, returning women are often underutilised, and then become despondent when they realise that the work isn’t challenging enough.
Women worry that their skills are out of date if they haven’t been in the corporate environment for a few years. However, all the evidence shows that the fundamental skills do not date
Another barrier that women perceive is that they have lost their business network and don’t know how to go about getting back into the workforce. They also perceive that the workplace has changed completely while they were on leave and they’re intimidated by the prospect of navigating their way around the new world of work. Images of ultra-cool office environments where youthful employees hang out in jeans and T-shirts sipping lattes do nothing to alleviate this fear! In reality, it doesn’t take long to get back into the corporate groove. Yes, technology has changed but it can be picked up quickly.
Women also worry that their skills are out of date if they haven’t been in the corporate environment for a few years. However, all the evidence shows that the fundamental skills do not date. If you used to be a good Marketing Manager, the chances are you’re still a good Marketing Manager but you’ll definitely need to update the tools and techniques you use.
Another critical barrier is that employers often do not even consider applications from people who have taken time out of work. Increasingly however employers are realising that so-called “returners” are a valuable source of talent and are prepared to invest in initiatives to help them get back up to speed.
When you’re applying for a job or doing an interview, don’t apologise for your career break. Be upfront about your reasons.
How would you advise someone to prepare themselves for a return to work?
There are lots of things you can do to prepare yourself for a return. Being involved in activities outside the home, like being on the Parents’ Association committee or doing some voluntary work, can show an employer that you’re motivated. If you have a professional qualification keeping your CPD up to date is helpful. Also, many of the professional organizations have returner up-skilling training sessions.
If you’re not quite ready to face the workplace just yet, you could consider Springboard programmes for re-training. Springboard is a Government-funded initiative which offers free courses at certificate, degree and masters level for job-seekers and since last year the programmes are open to “homemakers”. Trinity College runs a Postgraduate Certificate in Creative Thinking, Innovation and Entrepreneurship specifically for returners.
There are also some immediate practical things you can start doing today if you’re feeling motivated:
- Create a LinkedIn profile if you don’t have one already. Check out profiles of people you admire to get some ideas of the style.
- Use your network to tell people you’re interested in returning to work. People who know your work from the past are probably your best advocates. Don’t be afraid to ask if they hear of something that might be suitable for you to let you know.
- Get in touch with your former employer who may well be interested in re-hiring alumni. Many professional services firms in particular are re-hiring alumni.
And when you’re applying for a job or doing an interview, don’t apologise for your career break. Be upfront. Explain that you took a break for family reasons (or whatever) and now want to return to the workforce.
Is a salary cut inevitable? Do you find that some employers exploit the extended leave period to offer lower salaries?
No, a salary cut isn’t inevitable but many women choose to go back at a more junior level and therefore earn a lower salary. And of course employers argue that if a woman has been out of the workforce for 10 years her skills are out of date and therefore she doesn’t warrant the same salary as somebody who is currently in the workforce. However, the real win-win here is that with a little bit of intervention and targeted support, a returner can marry the wealth of her experience with up-to-date skills, which makes her very valuable.
Instead of seeing the career gap as an issue, some companies view the motivation and drive which prompts women to return as an asset
How can companies accommodate and entice more women back to the workplace and what benefits can they expect from doing so?
Increasingly companies are developing returner initiatives to attract women back to the workforce. In some cases these are very specific work placement programmes, often called “returnships” after the term was coined by Goldman Sachs in 2008. Under these types of programmes companies generally offer a 3-6 month paid work placement, and include coaching and other supports such as a buddy and/or a mentor, and re-skilling in office skills or specific professional skills. Many also offer some flexibility, such as a 4-day week, or a day working from home.
Although there is no guarantee of a job at the end of a work placement, very often returners are kept on, and even if they aren’t kept on they gain very valuable experience which positions them well for their next job.
Other companies choose not to run specific programmes but are becoming what I call “returner-friendly”. They recognise the value that returners bring to the workplace and have adapted their recruitment and HR policies to be receptive to returners whenever they apply. Instead of seeing the career gap as an issue, they view the motivation and drive which prompts women to return as an asset.
From a company’s perspective, they need to offer some supports in the first few months to help the returner get back up to speed and to address any confidence issues. At the end of that period what they get is a highly-skilled, committed professional who brings a wealth of experience to the workplace.
As we approach full employment again in the Irish economy, employers are facing talent shortages. Also, many companies are committed to addressing gender balance issues at management level. Actively seeking out and supporting returners can be a very effective way to address these issues.
About Anne-Marie Taylor
Anne-Marie Taylor, formerly a Senior Executive with Accenture, now enjoys a portfolio career as a management consultant, executive coach and Non-Executive Director. For more information on her services visit the Career Returners website