Leaving a career to raise children is a huge decision many parents make. But after their kids have grown and become more self-sufficient, parents may get the itch to go back to work. Returning to work after taking significant time off poses unique challenges for parents, especially if they’ve been out of the game for a while. Getting back into a job-seeker’s mentality, finding a new career, making sure their skills are current and adjusting themselves and their families to a big change can make any parent a little nervous. However, with thoughtful planning and some expert guidance from a job search professional, parents can make a smooth reentry into the workforce.
Knowing the right time to go back to work can be tricky. The following questions can help parents determine if they and their families are ready for such a change.
If their kids are school-aged, parents will have to figure out how they’ll handle school closures and emergencies that take place during work and school hours. Some jobs may give parents the day off for certain holidays, but parents will also need to consider spring, winter and summer breaks, teacher training days, weather closures and sick days. If enlisting the help of a friend or family member, parents should be sure to discuss these situations with that person before looking for jobs.
This can be particularly important for parents who share a car, take advantage of public transportation or live far from where they plan to work. Making sure their transportation is reliable and in good working order can prevent stress and mishaps when getting to work.
Even after their kids have gained more independence, parents may still have to balance their children’s extracurriculars, as well as their own. Figuring out how having a job will play into everyone’s activities can be an important step in making career plans.
Whether they take on part-time, full-time, project-based or freelancing jobs, parents will have to contend with a decrease in their free time. Making sure that they have a solid understanding of what they need and want from their lives outside of work can help parents decide what kinds of jobs they should seek.
Some will need flexible schedules, for instance, while others may be fine with a consistent 40-hour work week. It’s important for parents to be honest and realistic with themselves when determining how much work they can take on.
Roles and responsibilities can change when a parent goes back to work, and it’s crucial for parents with partners to communicate and have a clear understanding of what each person will realistically and reliably contribute. This can help guide decisions about schedule and wage requirements and can ease the transition of one parent going back into the workforce.
This is a big question that won’t necessarily have a clear answer right away, but the various activities and tasks that may need adjustment upon returning to work are worthy considerations. Driving kids to school versus transitioning them to taking the bus, carpooling or providing them with their own vehicle and the accompanying expenses, for instance, can be a big change for parents and their families.
This step goes hand in hand with figuring out how returning to work may affect daily life. Parents may be eager and excited to get back to work, but other members of their family may not be so comfortable with the idea. This can be disconcerting, but parents can try to assuage any fears they, their kids or their partners may have by talking through the process and making sure that everyone is comfortable before moving forward with any major changes.
Figuring this out is not always easy! It may never feel 100 percent like the “right time” to go back to work, and not knowing what career to pursue can make doubts worse. However, uncertainties are normal, and there are tons of ways parents can figure out exactly what type of career they want and what they need to do to get it.
After assessing their home situation and deciding that going back to work is right for them, parents will need to decide what kind of career to peruse. Depending on how much time they took off and the position they held, parents may be able to return to their old careers without too much trouble.
However, many parents are unable to step back into previous roles after raising children, and many find they don’t want to, even if they could. Job search expert and co-founder of D&S Professional Coaching, Debra Boggs, notes that transitioning careers is hard in and of itself, and doing it after a long time away can prove to be even more challenging.
Here are a few things to consider when making this decision:
Some parents spend years–even decades–away from work, and in that time, it’s natural for them to develop new interests and passions. Someone who had a fulfilling career crunching numbers may find that more hands-on work with people seems more appealing now. Exploring careers that align with newly developed interests can be a great way to find a new job.
Even after a significant hiatus, parents likely won’t lose many of the skills they learned through previous jobs, and they may have learned new ones in the process of raising a family. By making a list of their skills, both job-specific and otherwise, job-seeking parents can get a better idea of where they excel. The skills they have now might prepare them better for jobs they would not have considered before having kids and listing them out can be a confidence boost in a potentially daunting time. Using tools like CareerOneStop’s Skills Matcher can provide additional guidance in finding careers that fit certain skill sets.
In some cases, parents return to work because they want to, but in others, they need the extra income. Those who need a specific income can narrow their job search by looking for careers that meet their needs. Creating a budget and accounting for the additional costs going back to work, like gas, wardrobe and skills classes that may be needed, can help job seekers figure out the wage they need from their job. Checking out websites like Payscale can further the search, allowing parents to look for average wages for certain careers in their area.
Parents who are returning to work for non-financially driven reasons may have more flexibility in their future career paths but looking into potential earnings based on their skills can still be a useful way to find prospective jobs.
Many parents will find that their old career no longer fits their lifestyle or interests, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use their previous job to their advantage. “The easiest option would be to return to the same industry or type of role you left, even if you have to take a more junior role to work your way back up to where you were,” says Boggs. “But, if you want to use this new job search as an opportunity to refocus your career, I suggest working within your network to make introductions to help you get interviews.”
Former bosses and coworkers can be great connections when searching for jobs and getting references at different companies. Parents can also mine their friend groups for possible connections to careers that fit their needs and interests. Plus, knowing someone who can help them get a foot in the door may increase the chances of a parent getting an interview when they might otherwise be overlooked because of their time off.
A hurdle parents often face is making sure their skills are up-to-date and relevant to the contemporary work environment. While some careers provide on-the-job training or ask for little in the way of job-specific preparation, considerable skills may be required for others. Even returning to an old job may need some brushing up, as industries and the technologies they use change quickly.
Hiring managers may see parents as less employable because of their time out of the work force, so showing that they are committed and prepared for the job is particularly important. Fortunately, there are a range of training options to suit parents’ specific needs, budgets and schedules.
Parents interested in learning skills through college courses without enrolling in a full degree program can see if colleges in their area allow students to take courses a la carte. Community colleges and trade schools are good places to look and tend to cost less than four-year colleges, but parents can extend their search to any school that fits their learning needs and budgets.
Those who decide to make significant career changes may decide that enrolling in a full degree or certificate program is their best option. While they will have to contend with the upfront costs of going back to school, parents who choose to enroll in a degree program may benefit from acquiring skills fit for a contemporary work environment.
Those who have already earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree can look into earning a graduate certificate instead of another full degree. Graduate certificates tend to take less time to complete, and provide industry-specific training for those looking to specialize in certain aspects of their careers.
Volunteering can be an excellent way for parents to get immediate hands-on experience related to their prospective career paths. Not everyone will find volunteer opportunities that are highly specific to their professional pursuits but answering phones and making copies at their kids’ schools, devoting time and labor to a community garden, teaching craft classes at a community center or offering guidance at a local hackerspace can all be great ways to explore passions and sharpen soft skills. Plus, volunteering may open up networking and career opportunities.
Many organizations and institutions within a parent’s community offer free or low-cost classes to learners of all ages. Libraries and community colleges may offer classes ranging from word processing and spreadsheets to web development and grant writing. These classes tend to be low-pressure and take place in supportive environments, which can be especially useful for those who are less confident about reentering the workforce. Boggs notes that parents can also leverage industry-specific organizations and associations that offer their own specialized training.
Massive Open Online Courses are online that are often free and self-paced, making them a convenient option for many parents. While MOOCs don’t often provide users with credentialing or proof of competency upon course completion, they can be great for personal growth and brushing up on specific skills. There are also many MOOC-like providers that give students the option to receive certificates of completion or badges to include on their LinkedIn profiles for a small fee. Udemy and LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda) are two great places to start.
For moms and dads in technology, taking courses on the newest versions of the software and systems they worked in can help show that they stayed up to date on the latest technology and are not returning with obsolete skills. Parents in other industries can still take industry or position-specific courses to demonstrate that they are proactive in returning to the workforce and have taken steps to refresh their skills to hit the ground running when hired.Debra Boggs
Internships aren’t just for college students and recent grads. Those who have spent time away from work and want to make a career change can find internships, or “returnships”, highly valuable. These training opportunities allow parents to get back into a work environment while building professional connections and gaining practical skills. They might even lead to a job.
iRelaunch, a resource designed specifically for those who have taken significant time away from work, can help parents connect with internships and other career and training opportunities.
Parents often go into the job market at a disadvantage, regardless of their skills or previously held positions, because a significant time gap can get their resumes pushed off to the side. Highly qualified parents may be ignored in favor of other candidates, simply because other resumes are straightforward and free of absences. But with some careful planning and by taking the right steps, parents can put their best feet forward.
Here are some tips from Debra Boggs, co-founder of D&S Professional Coaching and a job search and resume specialist.
If parents have been away for more than a year or two, it's best to write a functional-style resume instead of the standard chronological format. With a functional-style resume, they are able highlight their relevant skills and accomplishments right up front, and then positions and dates are listed at the end. This ensures the value is read before the employment gap.
During the application phase, the best way to show enthusiasm is to personalize your outreach beyond the online submission. You can reach out to the recruiter, hiring manager or HR staff personally and let them know you have applied. You can also try to find other leaders in the organization the position you applied for would report to and reach out directly to them about your application. This shows initiative and enthusiasm and can often result in a conversation or inside tips to help you in the process.
Parents may want to spend some extra time recalling the work that they did before they stepped away, because it will not be as fresh in their memory as it would be for other candidates.
Most interviewers will go to LinkedIn to see your photo and learn more about you. Your summary section is a great opportunity to tell a bit more about what you've been up to while also raising your family. Not to mention, you'll want to grow and nurture your network, and you can use the platform to easily apply for lots of jobs.
It is very important to include a cover letter for returning parents, especially dads. It is your best opportunity to explain the gap, show personality and give a bit of context to your desire to return to the workforce. My rule of thumb is to answer any questions that you know will come up right up front while you still have the opportunity to do so.
Research who members of the team are and the recent company and industry news, and prepare high-quality, well-written handouts, like a 30-60-90 day plan or a portfolio of relevant projects or work. Candidates can even send emails to everyone who will be in the interview ahead of the meeting to introduce themselves and let them know they are excited to meet. These extra steps can have a huge impact.
It is worth it to create a login and complete a few questions on Glassdoor to unlock TONS of free information, like common interview questions, compensation history and employee reviews of the company culture. This is a great way to get a pulse on what goes on inside the company and to help prepare for an interview.
You can find out a lot about company expansions, earnings reports, layoffs or financial troubles and major corporate initiatives to reference during your interview. Do a search on the company name and look at the news articles several pages in, not just the company website.
Once they have their foot in the door parents may wonder how to best address their gap in employment and their parenting status in interviews. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.
When it comes to discussing time off to raise a family, things can get a little tricky. Title VIII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that people cannot be denied employment based on their sex, which includes discrimination based on pregnancy or paternal status. In order to avoid potential claims, employers may choose to not say anything about a person’s gap on their resume.
Parents should not leave hiring managers to make assumptions about their time off. Boggs says that it’s generally better to be upfront about taking time off to raise children and move on to why they are ready and eager to reenter the work force.
Explaining a gap on a resume is a bit different for men and women. When hiring managers see a gap on a woman's resume, they assume she was off raising a family. When they see a gap on a man's resume, they often assume long-term unemployment. This means that it is important for men to explain the gap, either in the cover letter or summary section of their resume so that they answer the question right up front.Debra Boggs
Parents should also be prepared to explain how their skills are up-to-date and in what ways they can contribute to a modern work environment. “While I don't think it is necessary to ‘fill the gap’ on a resume if you explain that you were away raising a family, it is necessary to highlight how you've grown or kept up on your skills during this time,” says Boggs. “This can be done through taking courses, volunteering or doing freelance work. Just don't feel tempted to put a job tile called ‘consultant’ to fill the gap, as this can look disingenuous or appear to be a failed business.”
While it can be okay to talk about how their experience as a parent helped them grow or prepared them for the line of work they’re seeking, parents may want to avoid focusing too much on how their parenting skills qualify them for a certain position. While managing family finances, communicating effectively and diplomatically, keeping themselves and others organized and balancing many schedules are valuable skills that transfer well to a wide range of careers, interviewees should keep in mind that the person interviewing them may also be a parent who has developed those skills while maintaining their career at the same time.
Since the late 1980s, there has been a tense division between parents who work and parents who stay at home; accidentally implying that one is better than the other during an interview can tank someone’s chances of getting the job.
Being upfront about their needs and showing that they are eager and prepared to be valuable assets to a company can go far for parents. Boggs notes that hiring managers often have a bias that assumes former stay at home moms and dads will be preoccupied as the lead parent and need more time off to tend to children, but that the interview is a good opportunity for parents to show their readiness to fully commit to a new role.
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