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9 Smart Tricks for Jumping Back Into the Workforce After a Career Break

Whether you've taken time off to be a parent, a caretaker, or a world traveler, these tips from career coach Elana Konstant can help you transition back to the office as seamlessly as possible.

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Accentuate the positives on your resume

“It’s a piece of marketing after all, so you need to sell yourself,” says Elana Konstant, a career coach with Konstant Change Consulting, who specializes in coaching women in transition. “Rather than focus on the gap or call attention to what you might be lacking due to your time out of the workforce, use the space to showcase the skills and experience you acquired, both before and during your break.” But don’t stop there: Cross-reference your interests and skills with the job market to see what is out there for you. Make sure that your resume, LinkedIn profile, and cover letter all speak to your brand and the qualifications employers seek. These are the things career-changers need to tweak on their resume.

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Get out there and meet people 

Start networking with your immediate contacts and then go beyond that first wave to find people at companies or in fields of interest. “Get relevant experience immediately that relates to the kind of work that you want to pursue in the future. This can be through strategic volunteering, freelance work, consulting projects, consulting/covering someone’s maternity leave, board memberships, and returnships.” Check out Apres for jobs specifically for women returning to the workforce, and Werk, which aggregates flexible jobs for women. Here are some LinkedIn mistakes that could cost you the job.

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Consider a part-time job first

When leaping back into the workforce, think about short-term and long-term goals, recognizing that they might diverge slightly. “Particularly when you’re trying to pivot into a new field, it might be necessary to find something part-time or project-based initially while you gain the experience and contacts to look for full-time work,” says Konstant. And if you’re the primary parent, you might also need to assess how your return to work will impact your family. “Ramping up slowly through part-time work or consulting might ease the transition for everyone,” she says. You may discover that you need to outsource some of the work you are used to doing for the household—such as driving older kids to activities, grocery shopping, housecleaning, and so forth. In the meantime, here are 10 ways to make money fast.

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Make sure your skills are up-to-date

Take an audit of your skill set to determine what you may be lacking. Talk to people in the roles you want and ask which skills you may need in those positions. Also, pay careful attention to job descriptions and company/industry developments. In other words, recognize that the technology you mastered years ago may no longer be relevant today. “Consider taking courses to boost technical skills and update certifications or licenses,” Konstant says. “And in the meantime, be able to demonstrate why you would be invaluable to the employers by solving their problems and meeting their needs, both expected and unexpected.”

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Be ready to explain your career break

Obviously you’re not going to call attention to anything lacking in your experience—including the hole in your resume, but it might come up. “Sometimes it does pay to take control of the message and spin your gap into a positive thing for the company,” Konstant says. “Use a statement like, ‘Over the past five years while staying home to raise my children, I wrote articles, established a small nonprofit, and performed consulting work for start-ups to stay apprised of industry developments. Now, I am excited to put those experiences to work to benefit X.'” Or, you can mention a course that you recently took to freshen up your technology skills. “Show that you are committed to the return,” Konstant says. “Don’t make it an issue because it doesn’t have to be one! Focus on why you are a stellar candidate.” Here’s what HR people won’t tell you about the job interview.

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Rehearse your explanation

Have a solid answer ready to go: Talk about what you have been doing, even if it’s unpaid or volunteer work, advises Konstant. Focus the information on your skills and what you would bring to the company. “Do research on a particular company or role to see what might appeal to the employer in your backstory. This is where informational interviews can be exceptionally helpful as you apply for positions,” Konstant says. Additionally, gain insight to set yourself apart from other candidates. For example, if you’re interviewing for a small company focused on providing healthy meal deliveries, talk about growing a garden with your children and the gardening/cooking classes you taught for local kids. Adds Konstant: “Make sure the experience you discuss is directly relevant to the role. If you don’t have that experience, go out and get some.” Here are 10 simple steps to find a new hobby you love.

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Stay positive while job hunting

Confidence is a huge factor in the return-to-work process, and it’s natural to find it all overwhelming. You can easily find yourself doubting your professional abilities, your job seeking abilities, and even your overall identity. “Tell yourself you are going to succeed and it’s more likely that you will—and others will think so too,” says Konstant. “Every time you have a negative thought, acknowledge your inner critic and try reframing the thoughts in a positive way. Using third-person to boost yourself up can be very effective, as it provides emotional distance. You tend to believe the words more because it feels like you are talking to a friend.” Konstant advises job seekers to establish a plan and take action, even if you’re faking it at first. As you begin to reach out to more people and get positive responses to your networking and marketing efforts, you will gain momentum and confidence in your decision. “One client told me that her revised resume and cover letter felt like ‘the best haircut I’ve ever had.’ Use that boost to propel you forward in your transition goals.”

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Expect a lower salary

Depending on what kind of work you do and how long you’ve been out, there may not be a significant penalty for a career break. “If you are returning to the same field and are seeking a similar role to the one you held within the past few years, then the salary differential should be nominal,” says Konstant. “Granted, your years out of practice will not be counted toward your seniority level, but this holds less weight at a smaller company.” However, if you have been out of the workforce for more than five years and are looking to reinvent your career in a new field or in a more flexible role, then it’s likely you will have to start at a lower salary. “In my experience, women who make such transitions quickly rise past their original earning potential because they are more driven and focused.” Avoid these huge mistakes women make when negotiating for a raise.

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Stay organized and seek guidance

So much of your return, whether you go back to your former field or pursue a different one, will be about how you spin your time away and make it seem constructive, explains Konstant. “Finding accountability partners is a great way to ensure that you are staying on track and progressing toward your goals,” she says. Consider working with a recruiter or career coach to do that. “Looking for work is a job in itself, so try to be systematic about it.” She recommends creating a schedule and an action plan, and trying to give yourself tasks every day so that you can measure your progress. “Many professionals relaunch their careers after a break (long or short),” she adds. “It just takes time and organization!”

Rachel Sokol
Rachel Sokol is a longtime contributor to Reader's Digest, tackling mostly cleaning and health round-ups. A journalism graduate of Emerson College, she's a former education writer, beauty editor, and entertainment columnist.