How to restart your career after a long absence

Workplaces are now more forgiving of those who step away for years at a time.

By the time Sharon Thomas left the workforce when her second daughter was born, she had spent years building a successful, demanding career in marketing.

"I had a big office and a big commute," she says.

For a year and a half, Ms. Thomas stayed home with her children. Then she accepted a job with a small marketing firm in Boston. "I was nervous about the logistics of going back," she says. "But it was perfectly fine once I started."

Making the transition back to the workplace after a significant absence – a year, two years, or more – can be both challenging and rewarding. It's a step more people are facing as the traditional approach – continuous, linear employment – gives way to a new approach marked by flexibility.

"The corporate-ladder model of career progression doesn't fit the majority of workers today," says Anne Weisberg, a senior adviser at Deloitte in Boston. The new model, she explains, is a "corporate lattice," which allows people to move in many different directions.

"This isn't your father's workplace anymore," says Denise Nash, director of work-life initiatives at Aquent, a marketing staffing company in Boston.

This gradual shift is evident in a small blizzard of books about career tracks, career paths, and "opting in." It also shows up in employment services with names such as On-Ramps and Mom Corps, specializing in flexible work, and in reentry programs at business schools such as Dartmouth and Columbia University.

Not surprisingly, most of these efforts are directed to women, since they are the majority of those taking extended time-outs for child rearing and caregiving. But men want time off, too, sometimes for family needs.

"The main reason men are pursuing flexibility is for personal interests or an avocation," Ms. Nash says. Among those in Aquent's database seeking flexible work, 40 to 45 percent are men.

Whatever the reason for a prolonged absence, employment experts urge those wanting to return to take stock of their time off and be prepared for questions.

"When my team hires, one of the things we look at on résumés is gaps in employment," says Rena Everton, human resources director for Ikano Communications in Salt Lake City. "We ask about those gaps. It is a major concern. We know they're going to need time to transition back to work life."

Andrea Kay, a career consultant in Cincinnati, finds that prospective applicants often anticipate rejection. "What do they tell the employer? What do they put on their résumé? They just are worried that they'll be seen as damaged goods."

To avoid that, she says, "Describe in an appropriate way to an employer where you've been, so it puts you in a good light. Help them see that you haven't been sitting around eating bonbons for two years." She suggests telling interviewers, "I'm excited about how I can contribute to your company and explore how my skills and background can be valuable in this position."

That background might include freelancing, volunteering, fundraising, and working on teams or committees. "Value comes in different forms," Kay says.

Robin Ryan, a career coach and author, suggests crafting a few statements about why you took a sabbatical, what you did, and how you stayed current.

Above all, be truthful. Kay tells of a man who had been out of work and lied on his résumé. "He had been working as a contractual employee, and now they were hiring him. He was afraid he'd be caught."

Although skills remain paramount in attracting employers' interest, the length of absences can matter, too. "If you've been out less than five years, you have an easier time reentering," says Cali Williams Yost, president of Work+Life Fit, Inc.

Even so, longer absences are not insurmountable. Claire Celsi of Des Moines, Iowa, stayed home for seven years when her daughters were young. She left a job with an insurance company and ran a family day care in her home. During that time, she studied for her undergraduate degree and volunteered for the Democratic Party.

When Ms. Celsi was ready to return to work in 2000, a friend asked if she would like a job with Al Gore's presidential campaign. The pay was low, but she said yes.

"Having those volunteer interactions while I was home with my kids was what got me that job," she says. Later, she took a paid position with the Iowa Democratic Party, then managed a congressional campaign. From there she moved to public relations. Celsi says, "No matter what you're doing, always be learning new things and making connections."

For men, the search can be more challenging. "Society is much more accepting of women staying home," says Ms. Ryan. "It's much more questionable" when men stay home.

Joe Musa of Mid­dletown, N.J., spent 18 months out of the workforce, caring for the couple's first child. "My wife had the better-paying job with better benefits," says Mr. Musa, a pastry chef.

When he wanted to return to work, he took a part-time job making pastries at a golf club. The position is now full time.

"It was great to go back," Musa says.

Eventually, most at-home fathers do earn paychecks again. "Seventy-five percent go back when their first child hits first grade," says Peter Baylies, founder of the At-Home Dad Network.

In the best cases, preparing for reentry begins while people are taking time off. Sarah Grayson, a partner at On-Ramps in Boston, suggests doing not-for-profit work or project-based work. "Even a couple hours a week, a couple days a month helps to maintain confidence and skills."

Those reentering also need a willingness to begin at a lower salary and a lesser title than they had before. "We all start somewhere and work our way up," Ms. Everton says. "That's not going away."

Ryan finds that many returning mothers would do well to consider part-time work. That is a need companies like Mom Corps are trying to meet. Speaking of the desire for flexibility, Ms. Thomas, now a vice president of Mom Corps, says, "The younger generation is forcing it."

As a labor shortage looms, some workplace experts think reentry will get easier. Corbette Doyle, chief diversity officer for Aon, says, "Women who have opted out largely for ... child-raising reasons offer one of the greatest untapped and underutilized talent pools employers have."

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