Reentering the Workforce

Thinking of going back to work? Keep yourself marketable now, while you're still at home.

Introduction

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Soon after his first child was born in 1987, David Boylan quit work. During the next 10 years, as he cared for his two children, he never once yearned for his former life as an actor. "I was more than willing to sacrifice my career for the kids," says Boylan, 49, of Glen Ellyn, IL. "Fatherhood brought out unbelievably powerful emotions in me."

But when his wife, Mary, a local television news writer and producer, grew tired of being the sole provider, Boylan returned to work as an industrial stage manager in 1997. And like so many at-home parents, he found the transition tougher than he imagined. "I felt guilty for leaving my children, and I felt guilty because I liked my new job," says Boylan.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4% of husbands with children under the age of 6 were stay-at-home fathers in 2000. Forty-five percent of women with children under the age of 1 were at-home moms in 2000, up slightly from 42% in 1998. Whether the current economic downturn and its accompanying layoffs are spurring more women -- and men -- to take a break from work is unclear. But experts do agree on this: Most parents who take time off will eventually return to work, and when they do, many find it a struggle. Prospective employers grill them about their commitment, for starters. In some fast-changing fields, parents who take just two years off are often deemed permanently "out of it," forced to accept a lower-level position at a lower-than-market salary. There are psychological barriers too. Not only may parents feel guilty leaving their kids with childcare providers, but many also fear rejoining the business world.

"When you're not working, you can lose your self-esteem in terms of how you view yourself as a professional," says Nancy Collamer, a career consultant in Greenwich, CT. "Even if you have exceptional skills and training, reentering still can involve a psychological leap."

But you can make that jump successfully. It may mean changing professions, becoming an entrepreneur, or marketing yourself so you can return to the career you left behind, but what's key is preparing to reenter before you start to job hunt.

    Shannon Oates

    Filling in the Blanks With Volunteer Work

    Shannon Oates, 39, of Chadds Ford, PA, always thought she'd stay home with her daughter, Sydney, now 8. But when Sydney was 7, Oates's husband of 13 years suddenly left her. She scrambled and in August 2002 was hired as a communications manager for AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company -- at more than twice the pay she'd earned in a similar position eight years earlier.

    How did she do it? In her seven years as a stay-at-home mom, Oates had honed her skills in a series of volunteer jobs. She served on the board of the Junior League, did publicity work for the church bazaar, and handled public relations for Sydney's cheerleading team and school. And she played up those experiences on her r?sum? and cover letter.

    Instead of trying to cover up the gap in her job history, she listed six volunteer jobs she'd had under the heading "Community Experience." "As we have moved around the country," she wrote in her cover letter, "Junior Leagues in three cities have provided me with many leadership opportunities through board positions and community project work."

    Oates's approach -- being strategic in choosing volunteer work -- is a good one. Patti Branco, president and founder of Management and Training Solutions, a sales training and human resources consulting firm in Ventura, CA, advises volunteers to take positions that broaden your skills and fit your talents. If you were a lawyer in your former life, offer to do legal work for a nonprofit. "Don't just show up and say you'll do whatever's needed," says Branco. "You'll be stuffing envelopes."

    Branco also recommends listing volunteer work on a r?sum?, even if it isn't directly related to the job you're after. Make sure to include what you learned from the experience. "If you were active on school committees, try, 'I learned how to work with diverse groups of people.' If you were a Red Cross field volunteer, you can say, 'I learned the most effective ways to react in emergencies,'" says Branco.

    But don't exaggerate the importance of minor volunteer experiences, and never lie. If you were completely out of the loop while at home, simply explain in your cover letter that you made a decision to focus on childrearing. And forget cute r?sum? entries. "If you raised your triplets and did nothing else, don't turn that into, 'Managed a household with three demanding customers,'" says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of CollegeRecruiter.com, a Minneapolis-based Web site for job seekers. It will only make you seem less professional and detract from your experience that directly applies to the job.

    Equally important is to keep current with new technologies. Oates didn't do that, but no one asked about her tech savvy during the interview process. If they had, experts say, she should have been upfront about her shortcoming and explicit about how she could fix it: "That is one area in which I was remiss, but I could take a course at night." The best approach, however, is to simply familiarize yourself with new software and technology by taking courses at a local community college and practicing at home -- before you start the job search.

      Joan Khera

      Finding a Job That Fits Your Life

      In 1998, when Joan Khera, 36, of Fremont, CA, left her job as a finance manager for Fujitsu America, a Santa Clara, CA-based computer hardware manufacturer, she was three months away from giving birth to her first child, Taran. She imagined that she'd return to finance when her son was 2, but when she began job hunting in 2000, interviewers were skeptical. They wanted to know: Would she be willing to put in long hours? Did she have plans to take any more time off?

      Employees really shouldn't ask these questions because they can lead to a discussion about an applicant's marital and family status, which violates federal and state antidiscrimination statutes. Pointing this out to an interviewer, however, will probably just make you appear defensive. Instead, try to address the employer's concerns about whether you can be counted on -- without letting yourself be dragged into a conversation about your personal life, says Branco. If you're asked if you're willing to work long hours and leave your baby, for example, say, "I have a wonderful full-time babysitter, and I am 100% committed to working and being successful at my job."

      Khera says she tried to do that, but after two months of job hunting, she wasn't offered anything. And she was being considered only for junior positions, which paid less than half the $90,000 salary she earned at Fujitsu but would still probably require 50- to 60-hour work weeks. Frustrated, she decided to switch tracks and turn her long-time hobby -- interior decorating -- into a business. She enrolled in a seven-month online decorating course, wrote a business plan, began networking for clients, and launched her company in the summer of 2000. In fact, many at-home moms turn to entrepreneurship because of the flexibility it offers. According to the Center for Women's Business Research in Washington, DC, 6.2 million women in the U.S. are business owners. But many just eke out a living. Nearly half of all privately held women-owned businesses had less than $10,000 in revenue in 2002.

      Khera says she now earns as much as she did in finance. She works fewer hours -- 40 to 45 per week -- and she also has the ability to pause at 3 p.m. to pick up her son from preschool every day. Twice a week, she drops him off at his grandparents' house; she spends the other three weekday afternoons with Taran, finishing work in the evenings after he goes to bed. "If I had kept looking in the finance industry, I probably could have found a job," Khera says. But she doubts the position would've been anywhere near as flexible, well-paying, or fun.

      David Boylan

      Networking, Even While on Diaper Duty

      David Boylan was never put in the position of having to defend the decade he spent at home with his kids because no employer ever asked him about it. The reason was simple: He had taken on lots of weekend and evening acting and stage managing jobs during those years, which he was able to list on his résumé. And he did not include his stint as a stay-at-home father in the cover letters he sent out; he organized his résumé around his accomplishments and skills, rather than chronologically listing his jobs.

      That, experts agree, was entirely appropriate. "David had continuity of employment, so he didn't have to explain where he'd been for the last 10 years," says Rothberg. "There was no need for him to say it was part-time work or that he was a stay-at-home dad." Indeed, Boylan says he easily found all the work he needed when he decided to return to a full-time job as a freelance industrial stage manager.

      Although not all fields are as amenable to part-timers or freelancers as Boylan's, companies are increasingly outsourcing work. And while free agency has its drawbacks -- no benefits or paid vacations, for example -- it does help make you more marketable when you're ready to return. In fact, it's often the smartest way to reenter the workforce after a lengthy time off, says William Bridges, Mill Valley, CA-based author of Creating You & Co. "The employer can try you out without long-term commitments," he says. "So all of those concerns about why you left the industry take a back seat."

      If you can't or don't want to freelance or work part-time when you're at home with the kids, at least try to maintain and develop contacts in the field you intend to return to, says Branco. Surround yourself with people who are in the industry you're targeting by joining business associations and local groups, she suggests. Order trade magazines and join Internet mailing lists that cover the field. For stay-at-home dads, developing and maintaining contacts is especially important, says Rothberg. "There's a stigma against men who stay home, unfortunately, more so than with women," he says.

      Like many at-home parents, Boylan found that his biggest obstacle was his own mixed feelings upon returning to work. Although his wife quit her job to become a freelance TV writer and producer and could usually care for their children after school, he knew they'd need to pay babysitters sometimes, and it worried him. "I just didn't feel that someone we paid could possibly provide the same energy, focus, and love that we would give our children," says Boylan. And, he points out, he also struggled with feelings of guilt over how much fun he was having working full-time again.

      Such ambivalence is extremely common, says Collamer. He points out that negative feelings are often exacerbated as the children and spouse try to adjust to the formerly at-home parent suddenly being less available to help with household chores and errands. But these emotions usually dissipate as the family becomes more comfortable with the new arrangement.

      Boylan, in fact, is feeling so positive and excited about the work he's doing lately -- not to mention the money he's bringing home -- that he doesn't envision himself leaving the workforce anytime soon. But he'll always be grateful he had those years at home with his kids. "I really can't think of a more noble career than taking care of children," he says.