A Career Comeback at Any Age

Two years. Five years. A decade. No matter how long you've been out of the workforce, what makes a difference is knowing the right tips and tricks to launch you back in

by Laura Sinberg and Kate Ashford
career comeback image
Photograph: Illustrated by Aad Goudappel

We’ve reached gender equality in so many areas—heck, there are even (a couple of) women members of Augusta National Golf Club—but when it comes to taking a career hiatus, women are still twice as likely as men to surrender their building IDs. That’s why it’s overwhelmingly women who must deal with a difficult résumé gap if they decide to get back in. Joining them on the hunt are women who’ve been laid off or fired; the unemployment rate for women 45 to 54 is 5.3 percent.

How hard is it to land a job after a break of more than a year? Though no current statistics exist, the answer is “pretty hard.” The best estimate comes from a 2009 study by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, which asked thousands of women about their experiences leaving the workplace. She found that women who wanted to return to work really struggled, since they were job hunting in what we now recognize as the doldrums of the recession. Of the roughly 89 percent of women who tried to get back in, only 40 percent ended up with full-time positions (the study didn’t identify how many of them wanted full-time jobs, and women had more success finding part-time work).

Dreary, yes, and more current numbers suggest the situation may not have improved much. When Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University surveyed male job seekers, he found that the longer the break, the harder it was to get rehired: Callback rates on job applications dropped from about 16 percent to 3 percent once the job seeker had been out of work for more than six months. The sting of a lengthy gap could be worse for women. “Research shows that when all things are equal, women are less likely to be hired than men,” says Pamela Stone, author of Opting Out? and a professor of sociology at Hunter College.

But if it’s clear that breaking back into the workforce is tough, it is also clear that women bring a vital set of skills to the challenge. “Women are great at using their networks and getting people to vouch for them,” says Hewlett. “And that’s particularly important right now, since everyone needs a way to avoid mass online job applications.” In fact, Hewlett, Stone and other experts argue that women’s prospects of landing a job after time off may be steadily improving as companies realize the potential of female returnees and the economy regains strength. “Women are natural advocates—for their kids, for their parents,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder of the career re-entry programming company iRelaunch. “Returning to work requires that they now advocate in the same way for themselves.” Cohen tells returnees to break down the process into steps, including figuring out whether you want to return to your old specialty; getting up to speed in a new field (or refreshing your knowledge of your former one); and volunteering strategically.

Also important, say experts, is to learn from others’ triumphs. In interviews this fall with women around the country who successfully relaunched, a picture emerges. They were all able to present their time away as a useful experience, actively use their networks and bounce back from setbacks such as job rejections. There is no magic formula for rebooting a career, but by mapping out a strategic plan of action and taking the right steps to follow it, you’ll be on the fast track to an appealing job offer.

Nancy Rodkin Rotering
Years out: 10
Way back in: volunteering

For the better part of the 1990s, Nancy Rodkin Rotering logged long hours as an attorney at a top Chicago law firm while juggling the demands of two young sons. Then, in 1997, her older child was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. A few months later, she became pregnant with a third child and received, after a routine amnio, some devastating news: Part of her baby’s spine was missing, and he might never walk. “It was the first time I recognized that I wasn’t always going to be able to pursue my career goals,” she says. A week before giving birth, Rotering quit her job.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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