Tips for Successfully Returning to the Workforce

Woman interviewing for a job
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The thought might occur as your youngest child mounts the school bus for kindergarten. Or when they enter middle school, or maybe even high school. At some point, though – if you are one of the 11 million U.S. parents who decided to “down ramp” from their professional career path in order to be a stay-at-home parent – you’ll mostly likely find yourself wondering if it’s time to return to the workforce. And with that thought will come a lot of questions about what you should do to prepare for this transition.

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, the percentage of parents who chose to stay at home with their young children remained constant between 1989 and 2016, at 18%. What had changed was the percentage of fathers who decided to step back from their careers in order to focus upon their families; the number of stay-at-home dads rose from 4% to 7%, while the percentage of stay-at-home moms fell slightly, from 28% to 27%.

Tips for Successfully Returning to the Workforce

Whether you are a stay-at-home mom or a stay-at-home dad, if you are contemplating a return to the workforce, there are steps you can take to make your career search successful.

Get Back in the Game and Network

The longer the length of time you have spent away from the workforce, the more important it is that you reacquaint yourself with your industry, analyze the current job market, and re-forge connections with former colleagues and other professional contacts.

One of your best resources at this stage of preparation is the professional social media networking site, LinkedIn. Not only does LinkedIn allow professionals to network, but it is also a great source for gauging the job market and learning about new industry developments. 

If you already have a LinkedIn account, the professional information you once shared there is no doubt due for a makeover, especially your resume (which may need to be redesigned to downplay your employment gap and better speak to rising job opportunities). If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, now is the time to create one. Be sure to develop your professional network, reaching out to former colleagues and to professional groups you may once have belonged to in order to let people know that you are returning to the game and are available for interviews.

You should also reach out to your former boss and supportive co-workers, assuming you left their organization on good terms.

Invite them to meet with you informally for coffee or lunch, explaining that you would welcome their advice as you transition back into the workforce. This will also allow you to catch up the company’s news, get updated about changes in the industry, and learn about any current hiring initiatives you might be interested in pursuing.

Retrain and Hone Your Job Skills

When on-ramping back into the workforce, you will need to be able to demonstrate to employers that, despite your gap in employment, you nonetheless possess the skills that would make you a desirable employee.

Ugrade your skills. Before you even begin to update your resume, it’s good to recognize areas where you may need to improve upon your previous job skills or even develop new ones (especially if you are in a tech-dependent profession or if you are considering a complete career change to a different industry).

Review job postings. One way to pinpoint areas for improvement is to review job announcements you’re interested in on career search sites such as Indeed.com or Glassdoor.com. Analyze the “minimum qualifications” and “preferred qualifications” sought in these ads to see how your own knowledge, hard skills, and soft skills stack up.

Get training. If there are commonly-requested skills you either don’t have or feel have rusted during your time away from the workforce, consider pursuing additional training in these areas.

Find Ways to Remedy Your Professional Gap

As you are getting back up to speed, another excellent way to re-hone your job skills is to look for freelance or contract work. In today's economy, many companies are open to the idea of contract workers, especially for big projects or to help launch new initiatives.

Take on some contract work or part-time gigs. Not only will pursuing part-time work enable you to refresh your professional knowledge, but there’s also always the chance that a part-time gig might turn into a full-time, benefited position. 

List recent training. Being able to describe recent skills training and / or relevant part-time experience on your resume will make a huge difference in defusing the “red flag” that is raised when hiring managers see an employment gap on your resume.

Volunteering counts as work. You can also use volunteer work to help fill your professional gap. To do so, keep a detailed list of the projects you have worked on with your school's PTA, school fundraisers, your church, or charitable organizations. Make a special note if you were in a leadership role like a large event or project. This is valuable information that can help to offset professional gaps. Here's how to include volunteer work on your resume.

How to Manage the Gap on Your Resume

The reverse-chronological format that works for job candidates without significant professional employment gaps often isn’t the best approach to take when crafting a resume following an extended absence from the workforce. Neither do you want to describe your most recent “experience” in cutesy language such as “Jones Family CEO.”

Don’t try to masquerade parenting as “professional” experience.

Begin your resume with a summary. Instead of including a chronological listing of your work history, begin your resume with a summary of qualifications that showcases your skills that are most relevant to the position you seek.

If you have a degree or recent training in your career field, place this section after the qualifications profile (providing dates for recent training but omitting early college graduation dates).

Highlight your most relevant skills. Then, in a functional resume format or – better yet – a combination resume, highlight activities and skills both from your early career history and from your time away from work in themed sections relevant to the job you’re applying for (examples include “Customer Service Experience” or “Event Coordination Experience” or “Communications Experience”).

Use length of employment. Finally, at the end of your resume, describe your actual employment history, in reverse-chronological order (if this experience occurred more than ten years ago, however, substitute the dates of employment with the length of employment – “five years” instead of “1990 to 1995”).

Review an example of a resume for a stay-at-home parent returning to the workplace.

Submit a Cover Letter That Shows You Did Your Homework

Your cover letter should be designed to grab the attention of hiring managers and entice them to give your resume their serious attention. It's also a valuable tool for parents seeking to return to work because it provides the opportunity to showcase your talents.

Focus on the employer and the job. As you write your cover letter, keep the focus on the employer – don’t be tempted to give a long defense about your absence from the work force. Instead, you want to emphasize why you're interested in their company, what skills you have that would make their organization more successful, and your specific accomplishments.

Be sure your cover letter is top-notch. Check and then re-check the grammar and spelling. Also, try to find the name of the company's recruiter or HR manager to personalize the letter. This shows that you have taken the initiative to research their organization.

Briefly mention the gap. While you shouldn’t dwell on your employment gap in your cover letter, it’s a good strategy to allude to it briefly, since hiring managers will sense, from the format of your resume, that you are downplaying your dates of employment. Keep your allusion simple and straightforward: in the final paragraph of your letter, provide a statement like:

Having taken a break from full-time employment in order to care for my family, I am now eager to return the sort of stimulating and rewarding workplace your company offers.

Address the Gap During Interviews

During phone interviews and face-to-face interviews, should the subject come up, acknowledge your employment gap in a similarly matter-of-fact-way. You could say something like:

You may have noticed a gap on my resume. After the birth of my second child, I made the decision to stay home with my children. I'm the type of person who puts 150% into everything I do. At that point, I felt that those efforts were best focused on my family. Now that my children are older, I'm at a point where I'm once again able to commit 150% to an employer. I'd like to discuss some of my past successes and achievements, both from my previous work history and my time out of the workforce.

Be confident when making these statements and the interviewer will have confidence in you as well. Remember that, as a stay-at-home parent, you’ve gained a maturity and demonstrated a level of personal dedication and commitment that will transfer beautifully to your new workplace.

How to Make Your Return to Work a Success

START NETWORKING: Reconnect to former employers and colleagues, and start expanding your professional network on social media sites like LinkedIn.

SHARPEN YOUR JOB SKILLS: Identify which of your job skills are rusty and seek out training and part-time employment opportunities to sharpen them.

BE CONFIDENT AND POSITIVE: Any employer worth working for understands that life happens and that sometimes family must come first. As you rewrite your resume, list all of the great hard and soft skills you can offer a company. This should give you the confidence you need to take this exciting next step.