FlexProfessionals shares advice for overcoming common challenges encountered when going back to work
Re-entering the workforce after a stint as a stay-at-home-parent can be a daunting proposition. How will you explain and justify to prospective employers the time you took off? How do you shake the creeping insecurity you might feel about the adequacy of your skills and experience for the positions you want. Are you really ready to enter the workforce, or are you fooling yourself and your family?
We work with many candidates grappling with these issues. In fact, since we focus almost exclusively on recruiting and placing part-time business professionals, well over half of our candidates are Stay-at-Home-Parents transitioning back into the workforce after taking time out to care for family. We have seen first-hand, many who have made the transition successfully and are now enjoying a healthy balance of work and family. We have also witnessed, however, those who have awkward forays back into the workforce only to realize they were not ready.
This article shares the lessons we have learned as well as advice from our candidates for re-entering the professional workplace. We hope this article helps you to market yourself in the best possible way, ease employer or personal apprehensions about your preparedness to enter the workforce, and facilitate a transition that is as smooth as possible and a win-win for both the new employee and employer.
Before we begin, let us set the stage for the employer climate into which most of our candidates enter. The majority of our clients are small, rapidly growing businesses. They are in desperate need of experienced resources to support their business growth, but they have tight budgets and little time to train new hires. They need on-demand experts that can hit the ground running. We have found this client base to be open to the untapped re-entering parent talent pool, especially for part-time arrangements. It is a good value and fit for their business models. However, even this set of clients is anxious about hiring former Stay-At-Home-Parents because of long-held stereotypes and perceptions. They are worried the candidates will not be as committed – that their families versus jobs are their top priority. They are worried the candidates will be inflexible and unable to roll with the inevitable ups and downs of the workload. They are worried that the candidates’ skills have gotten stale and that they may be out-of-touch with new business norms. Of course these are the same anxieties that the candidates have, so the fears feed one another.
Handling the “GAP”
The “gap” is the time period during which you left the professional workforce and the time at which you are ready to re-enter. This may be one year, ten years, or much longer. You may have worked part-time during these years, dabbled in a new interest or occupation, volunteered your heart out, immersed yourself in family, or all or none of the above. From our experience, the best way to deal with the gap is honestly, but smartly, emphasizing any parts of the gap that are valuable to the prospective employer while deemphasizing those that are irrelevant to the employer.
Resume Strategies for Handling the Gap
Let’s start with how to do this in your resume. As you assemble the parts of your resume, the general rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “Does this experience, job, training, other endeavor, improve my qualifications and readiness for the job I want?” If the answer is, “yes,” highlight it but only relative to the importance of your other professional experience. If the answer is, “no,” downplay or eliminate it. Here are some guidelines for how to do this in your resume. Example resumes can be found on our job seeker resource page.
Start with a Profile of Summary of Qualifications
To help the employer’s first impression of your resume to be your professional experience and not your recent gap, begin your resume with a summary statement highlighting your professional identify. This statement should include your primary field, level of experience, critical skills or expertise, and if desired, your job search objectives. For example, “Registered Engineer with over twenty years of experience in management and planning of projects ranging from $200,000 to $13 million,” or, “Seasoned results-driven marketing professional with over 20 years of experience in corporate, government, and non-profit environments.” This section does not need a title. It should be centered at the top of your resume just under your name and contact information so that it is the first thing the employer reads on your resume. It should be no more than two or three sentences and may be followed with a brief bullet listing of your skills.
If Gap Is Three Years or Less, Ignore It in Experience Section
We have not found employers to worry too much about a two or three year gap, especially in this economy. Unless you have work experience during the gap that is relevant to the position you are pursuing, if the gap was less than three years, do not mention it. Just start the Experience section of your resume with your last professional job experience.
Include Paid Jobs in Experience Section
If you worked a paid job during your gap, include it whether or not it is relevant to the current job or field you are pursuing. If it is a job that is relevant to your current field, for example if you did some part-time or limited independent consulting work in your field, include it in the Experience section of your resume and take the opportunity to highlight some specifics about the clients you worked for and projects on which you worked. These types of jobs can raise skepticism in employers who want to know, “How much did she really work, was the work consistent, and was the responsibility and scope of work worthwhile?” So make sure you craft these work experiences in a way on your resume that highlights specific accomplishments, job titles, and client names so the employer can get a sense of the substance of the work you were doing.
If the paid job, however, was in an area different than your primary professional experience and different from the job or field you are pursuing, for example if you were a substitute teacher, real estate agent, or part-time business owner during your gap, include it chronologically in the Experience section of your resume, but keep the content brief, stating the position, years you held that position, and perhaps a brief bullet or two highlighting any significant accomplishments. These jobs should never outweigh the content of the jobs you held that are directly relevant to the position or field you are pursuing.
Include Only Relevant, Very Substantive Jobs in Experience Section
If you held a volunteer position during your gap and it was relevant to the current job or field you are pursuing, include it in the Experience section of your resume, but do not make it the focal point. Examples of this might be jobs you held for non-profit organizations that utilized your area of expertise (e.g., construction project manager, bookkeeper, legal counsel, etc.). Highlight some of the specific accomplishments you achieved including any measurable results.
Put Other Volunteer Work or Pursuits in Volunteer/Community Service Section Toward End of Resume
You most likely held volunteer roles and pursued other unpaid endeavors during your gap that may not have been relevant to the current position or field you are pursuing, but kept you busy, engaged and productive and made significant contributions to a community or organization. For example you may have chaired fundraising committees (a stay-at-home-parent staple), chaired a charity event, volunteered for the school library, served on the PTA, etc, etc. Volunteer work may be important to an employer as evidence of character traits such as resourcefulness, initiative, creativity, leadership, flexibility etc. Include any of these pursuits you feel exemplify your character, but put them in summary format near the end of your resume in a Volunteer section.
Include Relevant Training in Education Section
If during your gap you took any courses that are relevant to the field you are pursuing, include them in the Education section of your resume.
What NOT To Include…
Some of the biggest no-noes we have seen were entries in a resume that called attention to the gap in a way that tried to justify or embellish it. Whatever you do, do not try to disguise the gap with a cutesy name like “Domestic Engineer” or “Head of Household” or a bullet list of your domestic accomplishments. While this is important to you and your family, it has no relevance to the employer, except to distract him or her from getting to the meat of your resume which is your professional experience. It may be read instead as a righteous defense of your choice to stay at home which may put the employer on the defensive. Instead, if you feel compelled to share with a prospective employer the reasons for your gap and re-entry into the workforce, include the explanation in a cover letter, but again, try to be brief and focused on how your story is relevant to the job at hand.
Interview Strategies for Handling the Gap
Once you are satisfied with how your resume positions your gap, you will need to prepare for how to address the gap during an interview. Again, our advice is to be honest and forthcoming, but brief. The prospective employer is going to want to understand your motivation for taking time off as well as your motivation and commitment to getting back in the workforce. Look for a comfortable opportunity to share that with him or her during an interview in an efficient way. Do not get too personal or devote too much time to it, but just succinctly explain that you needed to spend more time to home due to children’s needs, a spouse’s travel or schedule, a move, etc. Do not share your personal views or opinions on why you think staying home is better for children or how the workplace should be more flexible, etc. This is not the right audience for that and it can only distract from the subject that is at hand which is your qualifications for the job.
By all means, do not be apologetic about your gap either. We have had some candidates so grateful to be given an opportunity to get back into the workforce at a professional level that they have fallen all over themselves thanking the employer for the “chance” that they are being “given.” Most employers do not view it this way at all and would not have given you an interview if they did not think you had something significant to bring to the table. So don’t be a charity case. Be proud of what you have to offer and show your gratitude to the employer through the value you will bring to their organization.
One final mistake we have seen our candidates make and about which we have received negative feedback from our clients, is dwelling too much on personal flexibility needs (hours, vacation time, etc.) early on in an interview. Even if you are applying for a part-time job, start with your credentials and ability to fill the position before broaching the schedule question. An employer will be a lot more open minded about potential flexibility needs once he or she has determined you are a strong candidate than before he or she knows what you have to offer. We have seen entire interviews derail before they even start due to a standoff about schedule.
Yes, it is true that the time you took off from your professional career track can be an obstacle in positioning yourself on a resume or in an interview with a prospective employer. However, if you think of the gap from the prospective employer’s mindset and ask, “How does the gap affect my ability to do this job?” you may be surprised at how you can draw nuggets of the gap to highlight as assets, while minimizing other aspects to not distract. Check our website out for some of our favorite example resumes of stay-at-home-parents who have effectively dealt with their gap.