Thursday, April 19, 2012

Ideas and tips for going back to work after an extended family leave

When I got pregnant in 2002 I thought I would go back to my advertising job after maternity leave. When my son was born in July 2003 I realized I wanted to stay at my new fun job of motherhood for awhile longer.

Fast-forward eight years and two more kids and I found myself in need of a job. My husband had lost his and we needed to maintain some semblance of an income. Very soon after I started my search, I was recruited to consult as a project manager in the marketing department at a large healthcare company. Not exactly as fun as advertising, but I had to start again somewhere. Ten months later and I've got my career groove back on and I'm making headway in my search for a long-term position in a more creative discipline. I've been on many interviews these past few months, which says a lot for my resume and what I was doing with myself during my 8 years as a (mostly) at-home mom.

Many women say, "I'll go back to work when the kids are in school," or "I want to be home for the first three years." Or, as I did, some say, "I'll don't know if I'll ever go back to work full time."

If you've ever said any of the above, I'd like to share a few tips and ideas with you. Looking back, I've found that I unwittingly helped my transition back to work by doing a few simple things that seemed insignificant at the time, but turned out to be invaluable networking tools and resume builders.

While you're home with the kids...

1. Stay in touch socially with your former coworkers. It reminds you and them that you've not completely forgotten about your professional life, even if you're breastfeeding 12 hours a day or shuttling kids to soccer and ballet 10 hours a week. More importantly, your former coworkers will be very helpful later when you need the name of a good headhunter or an in at a company where you want to work.

2. Create a LinkedIn profile even if you're not working or looking for work right now. Connect with people you've worked with and keep your name out there. It will help you keep tabs on what people in your industry are doing, where they're going, and how quickly your industry is evolving while you are on the sidelines.

3. Use social media wisely. Do use Facebook to stay up on your social and business circles, but don't use it to air out your dirty laundry. More and more employers are using social media as a tool for vetting potential employees. Whether it's ethical or not is irrelevant. They're doing it, so be mindful of how much you share with the world online. Once your resume is out there, be sure to monitor your Facebook and Twitter accounts to prune any questionable updates and/or links.

4. If your industry is conducive to it, take on a freelance job once in a while. It's a great way to fill in your gap in employment and keep your skills fresh. It also keeps your face and name familiar to prospective future employers. This is where #1 comes in very handy.

5. Be active in your community and volunteer for projects. Probably the single best decision I made during my extended family leave was to volunteer in a leadership position for a community organization. It made use of my marketable skills and meaningfully filled a two-year gap in my employment record.

6. Start a club, take a class, create a website, write an article, etc. Do something that gets your brainwaves moving in a direction other than the playground. It will be intellectually stimulating for you and your resume.

7. If your lifestyle allows, get a part-time job and/or take classes. Keeping your skills current is one of the most important things you can do, especially after an extended family leave.

8. Be prepared for the unexpected. As I mentioned earlier, I never thought I'd be in a position where it was absolutely critical that I get a job and support the family. I was happy to do the occasional freelance and volunteer work while my husband did the breadwinning. I've learned that you have to be prepared for layoffs and economic changes that may require you to jump into action and put your best foot forward.

When you are actively looking for a job...

1. Set goals. Do you want to climb the corporate ladder and work toward a corner office or are you content to be a worker bee who does her job and goes home? Either one is fine, but you must know which it is you want and how your choice will affect your personal life.

2. Be realistic. If you've been away for more than a few years, you may not be able to step back into your career at the level you were when you left. It’s also possible that the title might be the same, but the duties associated with it have changed while you were away. In my case, the advertising industry transformed with the Internet and social media while I was away. I have found myself to be under qualified for positions with titles that would have been perfect for me before.

3. Get current on the skills you need. Take an e-learning course or a night class at a local college to get yourself where you need to be in order to get the job you want.

4. Be prepared to reinvent yourself. In my case, the job I had before my kids was very demanding and required a lot of hours. That hasn't changed, but I have. Don't put yourself in a position where you'll have to compromise the life you want with your family. The nice thing here is you have an opportunity to try something you've always wanted to do. But be prepared to start at the bottom.

5. If you are looking at a total career change, take inventory of your key strengths (and your weaknesses). Choose a discipline that will take advantage of positives, and take steps to improve where you must. See #3 above. Consider visiting with a career counselor who can help you discover a new path.

5. Use all the tools available to you. All the tools you need to build a great resume, network with people, learn a new skill, and find a great job, are available on the Internet. Learn to use them well. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are the most popular, but they’re not the only ones. Read blogs written by and about people in your industry. Read your industry's trade magazines. And read the news every day.

6. Don't settle. You'll feel flattered if you get a job offer and may feel like you should take the first thing that comes along. Really weigh the pros and cons and, with your family in mind, don't take it unless it's the right fit for you. At the same time, know a good opportunity when you see it.

7. Stay grounded. Let's be honest, when you're a busy mom taking care of kids, it's easy to wax nostalgic about the days when your career was on the rise and your biggest responsibility was to your employer. Once you are getting the interviews, it's easy to envision yourself as an in-demand career woman. Don't forget that you are in-demand at home, too.

8. Don't give up! If you don't get the job you really want or you send twenty resumes a week with no contact from anyone, don't ever give up and assume you're unemployable. There is generally a good reason you aren't getting those calls, and the first stumbling block is often the resume. You’ve got to make that first impression count, so learn as much as you can about what makes a resume shine, then polish yours until it gleams!

I hope you found these tips helpful. Next time, I’ll offer up some thoughts about how things change after the transition from stay-at-home to working mom, and what you can do to make it a little easier, especially if you have small children. See you next time!