Women who take a career break to raise children, care for a sick or elderly relative, or attend to their own medical needs sometimes feel overwhelmed when the time comes for them to return to the workforce. Job searching itself is stressful enough. It can be even more pressure-filled when you are also worrying how potential employers may view gaps in your work history.
To make the process easier, here's a list of helpful tips for getting back into the job search and landing a great new role:
1. Prioritize networking
It's not what you know, it's who you know. Research shows that anywhere from 50 to 80% of jobs get filled through networking. Don't shy away from this worthwhile activity. Join your industry's professional associations and attend virtual events. See what networking opportunities your alma mater offers for alumni. Build a LinkedIn profile and start connecting with others in your field.
2. Reactivate old networks
"Yes, it may be a few years since you left the workforce, but the beauty of LinkedIn and other social networking websites is that they can help you track down long-ago co-workers and other professional connections who may be able to bring you up-to-date on trends as well as reintroduce you to new connections," says Duncan Mathison, co-author of Unlock the Hidden Job Market: 6 Steps to a Successful Job Search When Times Are Tough. "No need to apologize for not staying in touch. Just enjoy reconnecting and opening doors."
3. Inform contacts that you're looking for a job
Extended family, neighbors, friends... consider anyone and everyone as a potential connection to a job. Tell as many people as possible that you're on a mission to reenter the workforce, and ask if they know anyone who might agree to an informational interview regarding your targeted job title or profession. Word of mouth can work wonders, especially for roles that haven't been posted yet, and referrals go a long way.
4. Learn how to job search
Online activity makes up a large part of today's job hunting. Examine company websites for employers of interest to learn about their openings. Follow them on social media. Peruse major job boards such as Indeed, Monster, Glassdoor and CareerBuilder. Check out niche sites, too, such as K12JobSpot if you're an educator. State in your LinkedIn profile that you're open to opportunities.
5. Fill in educational/skill gaps
As you read job descriptions, note where you might be falling short of requirements. Do people who currently hold the type of role you desire possess a certain degree or certification? What specific skills do employers seem to mention over and over on their websites and job postings? Taking steps to fill any holes in your own experience through online courses, refresher seminars, and other professional development avenues helps you stay relevant and shows employers that you're a life-long learner.
6. Decide how you'll address your employment gap
"Don't try to hide the reason for your absence from the workforce," Mathison says. He suggests that a brief explanation in the professional summary of your resume could suffice. Writing something as brief as, "Dedicated professional returning to the workforce after family commitments. Ready to provide significant value for my next employer as ..." could suffice.
Confronted with work-gap questions during an interview? Continue with the same brief, no-guilt approach. Then, shift the focus back onto the job at hand and how prepared you are to do it.
7. Write a strong resume
Modern employers commonly use an ATS (applicant tracking system) to sort through the abundance of resumes they receive in order to identify the most promising candidates and eliminate those they deem unqualified. ATS are pre-programmed with keyword filters and scan resumes looking for certain job titles, skills, education, and other qualifications that align with these keywords. If the ATS does not see these keywords in your application material, you're unlikely to move on to evaluation by an actual person. To write a resume that will pass an ATS, study the job description to familiarize yourself with the most critical qualifications for the role at hand, and add the qualifications you possess to your resume.
Remember, too, to quantify achievements and use strong, active verbs to describe your accomplishments so you'll hold the interest of the hiring manager reading your resume. Billing yourself as the "eagle-eyed editor of the Hartford PTA monthly electronic newsletter with a circulation of 5,000 for seven years" comes across as stronger than simply stating you're a "good editor."
8. Consider using a combination resume format
"It's important to consider the resume format you use, especially because employers spend a few seconds, on average, reviewing an individual resume," says Kenyetta Nesbitt, founder and leading career consultant at Ambition Evolve Career Services. "Utilizing a combination resume format allows you to focus on documenting the most valuable transferable skills immediately near the top of your resume. This includes a strategic summary of qualifications followed by listing targeted skills you possess and flowing into work experiences and accomplishments that align with the role(s) you are applying to. With work experiences listed near the bottom of a combination resume, the employer's attention is drawn more to your skills and accomplishments and less on your employment gaps."
9. Include what supports your candidacy, ditch what does not
Remove outdated or non-relevant skills. Knowing how to conduct Internet searches and type a Microsoft document no longer makes you special. Likewise, do not include personal information, hobbies or interests with no bearing on the job at hand. Mentioning them can come off as filler written by someone without the requisite qualifications.
When your time away from the workforce includes applicable non-paid experience, though, say so. Employers love to see examples of leadership, teamwork, organizational skills, and the like in action."If you accumulated relevant volunteer, civic, hobby, or continuing education experience, including brief entries highlighting those experiences can be beneficial to fill in some employment gaps. Focus on transferable skills used and accomplishments achieved," Nesbitt says.
So, if you gleaned leadership skills through volunteering for the PTA at your child's school, feel free to list that on your resume under a "Volunteer Work" or "Related Experience" header.
10. Update your cover letter
Unless specifically asked not to include one, write a cover letter. It's a better place than a resume to offer a brief explanation of a work gap. You don't need to include personal details or appear apologetic. Just focus on your enthusiasm and qualifications for the role at hand. Customize the letter to the specific employer to show you're interested in that particular company, not just any job.
11. Learn how to use Zoom
With or without a global pandemic, many companies are turning to video interviews for at least the first round. Becoming comfortable with this medium will allow you to put your best self forward. You'll also demonstrate to prospective employers that you're comfortable with tech. Sign up for Zoom and do a few practice runs with friends and family to familiarize yourself with the platform and get comfortable on camera.
12. Prepare answers to standard questions
Many of those common interview questions thrown at you the last time you were searching for a job remain popular today. Reduce the stress of formulating on-the-spot answers by crafting polished responses to old interview standbys such as "Tell me about yourself" and "What are your strengths and weaknesses?" Write down your responses and practice your delivery with a trusted friend.
13. Let your confidence shine through
Whether the interview takes place in person or on Zoom, remember to make a strong impression. Don professional attire, sit up straight, look people in the eye, talk clearly, listen, and present a genuine smile. A positive and confident demeanor is contagious!