Once upon a time, you decided to take a few months away from your career to spend time with your new baby, or tend to a sick relative, or start your own business. Perhaps those months turned into years and you now find yourself wanting to return to the workforce, armed only with a dusty resume and a dated power suit. Don't despair. By following the six steps below, you can take control of the back-to-work process and will restart your career in no time.
- Talk to someone in the field. If you've been away from the work world for more than a year, things have probably changed. It's smart to talk to an industry insider before you officially kick off your job search. See if you can have coffee with a former colleague who has remained in your field. Or get in touch with your alumni association or an industry group and see if they can connect you with someone who can give you the inside edge. Ask them what are the key issues facing people in your industry. Are they using new software? Have any regulations changed? This information will help you prepare for your job search and eliminate surprises along the way.
- Upgrade your technical skills. Many skills needed to succeed on the job do not change: if you left your career as an excellent communicator, creative thinker and relationship manager, you still have those skills. Technical skills are more subject to change and depending on the type of job you are seeking, you may need to retrain. The time to upgrade your skills is before you apply for a job. If you can show that you've kept pace with changes to your industry, a prospective company is much more likely to consider you for the role.
- Update your resume and online profile. Things may have changed since you last updated your CV so do some research into current resume writing techniques. Ask a recruiter friend if she will review your resume over coffee or ask a search firm that recruits in your field for help (it's to their advantage for your resume to look great so they can present you as a candidate in the future.) Make sure that you have a good profile on LinkedIn and ensure you look professional on social media. Consider setting up a Twitter profile and start to follow key influencers in your industry. Pick a professional sounding email address (firstname.lastname@example.org might not be the best choice unless you are interviewing in a very specific field.) Recruiters routinely research candidates online, so you want to have a presence other than an active "I heart Grumpy Cat" Pinterest page.
- Strut your strengths. Repeat after me: "I do not need to apologize for the gap in my resume." Unless you have spent your last decade as part of the Real Housewives franchise, you will have developed some transferable skills during your time away from your career. Perhaps you did the books for a family business and deepened your knowledge of finance, accounting, and taxes. Perhaps you ran a committee at school or served on a not-for-profit board and fine-tuned your strategic planning and people management skills. Perhaps you advocated for your special needs child or stick-handled your divorce and learned invaluable research and negotiation skills. No matter what you did, it's up to you -- not the recruiter -- to make the connection between the skills you developed and the skills they need. Talk about the transferable skills and don't downplay them simply because you donated your time.
- Emphasize your maturity. You are no longer 20 years old. That's a huge advantage. At work and in your life you've seen a thing or two and that experience is invaluable to a future employer. Unless you are applying to be a Hollywood ingénue, don't hide your age or the fact that you've raised a family. Your understanding of people, your ability to motivate others, and your ability to communicate will be superior to some young whippersnapper out of school. As long as you have up-to-date technical skills, you will have a distinct advantage over younger candidates competing for the role. You put in those years: own them.
- Refuse to be penalized for leaving the workforce. There are unscrupulous companies out there who will tell you that you must take a giant career step back simply because you've been out of the workforce for a couple of years. Unless you are completely changing careers, you should be looking at jobs that are at a similar level to the one you held when you left your career (this in itself can be frustrating since if you return to the same company, you might be reporting to someone you once trained!) Some companies will tell you that you should take something more junior and promise to promote you quickly once you show them what you can do. The reality it, it's almost always easier to negotiate title and salary before you accept a job. Think of job hunting like dating: if a company isn't generous in the courtship phase, they aren't going to be more generous in the marriage.
Returning to work can feel intimidating but it doesn't have to be. Do your homework, be prepared, sell your strengths, and stop apologizing. They need you -- skilled, wise woman -- as much as you need them. Now go get that job!
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You think you'll show how eager and prepared you are by arriving 15 or more minutes early, but the manager -- who's usually notified of your arrival shortly after you check in with the front desk -- suddenly feels pressured to meet with you, and the receptionist has to figure out what to do with you in the meantime, explains Jenny Blake, Life After College author and former career development manager at Google. Most hiring managers are overworked, overstressed and overscheduled. By showing up five to 10 minutes before the interview, you're demonstrating not only that you understand that, but also that you're doing your part to be one less thing for him or her to worry about.
You've scanned the company's mission statement and "About" page on the website, but have you translated those vague messages about the importance of "teamwork" and "creativity" into clues that can define your interview -- especially how you'll demonstrate those values? In This Is How to Get Your Next Job, author Andrea Kay quotes VonChurch CEO Alex Churchill, who says that every interviewee is offered a glass of water as soon as he or she walks in the door: "If you don't say thank you after being offered the water, you've failed the interview right there." Politeness is among the company's core values, and like many managers, he wants to see candidates who display those values from the start.
Most candidates have a checklist of things they want to convey in an interview: a) where they've worked, b) how much they want the job, c) how productive they are and d) a reiteration of all of the above. Too bad managers don't hire based only on these things, says Kay. "They're going to hire you because you can solve their problems." Go back to the job description and draft a new checklist, with a focus on how you'll be able to handle each responsibility on it, as well as support your boss in whatever way she needs.
Two seemingly nonchalant questions most employers ask before the interview even starts carry a lot more weight than you'd think: "How about this weather?" and "Did you have a hard time finding us?" Although it might seem like an easy way to commiserate -- and bond -- with strangers, bringing up the temperature or traffic tends to backfire here, even if you've had to navigate an unfamiliar office complex on a massively humid day. "The interviewer knows very little about you, so she's soaking up every little thing to assess who you are," says Allison Green of AskAManager.org. When you gripe about the small stuff, you might as well be saying, "If you hire me, I will respond to every request with an eye-roll and a heavy sigh."
While it's always good to have work samples on hand to illustrate a point, "when you take out your portfolio right away, you're hijacking the interview, and it sends a strong signal that you're going to be a management problem down the road," says Martin Yate, author of Knock 'Em Dead: Secrets & Strategies for First-Time Job Seekers.Save it for later in the interview, when you're answering a question that can be best explained using the visuals. Beyond that, copies of your resume, pens and a notepad are critical to have on hand -- though they come with a caveat as well. Take notes only if there's something you'll need to follow up on, or if the interviewer has to answer a call mid-conversation -- that way you can remind him where you left off, Yate recommends. Otherwise, keep the pen out of your hands (especially if you're prone to absent-mindedly clicking, chewing or twirling it).
One final note: You've heard before how important it is to dress appropriately. But in the era of business casual, trendy business casual and startup casual, every office has its own unwritten rules about how people dress at work, and no two offices are quite the same. Have lunch just outside the office a few days before the interview, and pay attention to what people are wearing as they enter and exit the building, recommends Yate. The sharpest-dressed person there is your new style icon.
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