8 Surefire Tips for Stay-at-Home Parents to Jump Back into a Career

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by Sharon Reed Abboud

Transitioning back to work can be difficult for long time stay-at-home parents. Often transitioning career-seekers have lost touch with their professional network. They send their resume in response to job ads and usually end up without a job or with a job that is below their professional level. There is a better way.

Job-seekers who have been home for three, five, or even 10 years or more can ease into a professional job if they strategize their job search carefully. By considering the following eight factors with advice from some of America’s career experts, most transitioning career-seekers should be able to jump right back into the professional work force.

1. It Really Is “Who You Know”

Remember the old saying: “It is who you know that gets you there.” Well, it is as true as ever. Most employers fill jobs by people they know or have met through networking or connections. Stay-at-home parents are sometimes “out of the networking loop” and need to get back in and make or re-establish their connections.

Mary Ann Blackwell, a professional career coach and owner of Blackwell Career Management, Washington, DC, advises transitioning stay-at-home mothers to “build bridges” toward the workplace.

“Probably 80 percent of professional women find their jobs through contacts,” Blackwell said. “You need to keep your professionalism activated.” Blackwell advises career-seekers to join a professional group or association and go to meetings at least once a month all the time they are raising their children to network and keep abreast of their field. She also encourages career-seekers to join at least one civic organization in their community.

It is never too late to establish or re-ignite a network. Transitioning career-seekers should join or re-join professional organizations in their field and start to network and develop professional contacts by attending their meetings. Active career-seekers may want to volunteer to serve on committees within the organizations. Looking for an instant comeback? Volunteer to speak at a meeting or professional conference. Transitioning career-seekers are advised to subscribe to professional journals and re-acquaint themselves with trends in their industry.

“You need to develop a lifelong plan to be professionally abreast of the times,” Blackwell said.

Elizabeth Wilcox, the Boston, MA-based author of The Mom Economy: The Mother’s Guide to Getting Family-Friendly Work, agrees. “A lot of women, I find, underestimate not only the strength of their past professional network but also their at-home network,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox advises transitioning career-seekers to find out what others do and how they can help you professionally. For example, Wilcox said she established a professional contact by asking another player on her women’s soccer league what she did for a living. It turned out that they had similar career interests and eventually completed a project together. She also found the agent for her book through a contact at her local church.

“Don’t be afraid to let people know what you are looking to do and don’t underestimate anyone in your network,” Wilcox said.

Tory Johnson, CEO of Women for Hire and author of Take this Book to Work: How to Ask for (and Get) Money, Fulfillment and Advancement also urges career-seekers to network with such network members as neighborhood friends and PTA contacts.

“These are people who know your work ethic and like you and trust you — so they are more eager to either help you get hired or hire you themselves,” Johnson said.

“Attitude is extremely important,” when you are networking, said Blackwell. She advises transitioning career-seekers to project confidence and enthusiasm. “You need to be able to create a verbal resume,” she added. “You ought to be able to tell people what you want to do.” Transitioning career-seekers are advised to circulate in their groups and let people know that you are going back to work.

Blackwell encourages career-seekers to set up a few informational interviews with people in their network. In an informational interview, you meet to ask questions, share ideas, and expand your network — not to ask for a job. [Editor’s note: Learn all about how to conduct informational interviews in our Informational Interviewing Tutorial].

2. New horizons: Should You Consider a Career Change?

Stay-at-home parents often report that being home and re-entering the workforce allows them the possibility of re-examining their career goals and to sometimes consider a career change. It is an important time to reflect on questions such as “Who am I?”, “What are my values?”, and “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

“I think raising kids in general teaches you a lot about who you are, and it can be a very reflective time for a woman outside of the workplace…”said Career Strategist Ellen Dunagan, president of Traverse Management Solutions, Arlington, VA.

3. Paperwork 101: Marketing Yourself: Resumes, Cover Letters, Web Pages

Transitioning career-seekers will need to create or revise their resume. Job-seekers can research resume and cover-letter formats on Quint Careers. In today’s job market, some career-seekers may want to consider creating their own web page.

Rather than focus on the employment gap, career-seekers should highlight volunteer experience and community involvement on their resume. Were you president of the PTA? Include it. Did you write the neighborhood newsletter? Add that, too. It is all valuable experience; just be sure to highlight the professional skills that you used in your volunteer positions.

“Transitioning back into the workplace can be made less difficult if a woman looks at her career trajectory as part of a continuum,” said Wilcox.

Wilcox advises transitioning career-seekers to think about how to portray their non-employed status. Self-assessment should focus on how they have been maintaining their skills.

Blackwell said to focus on your “goals, objectives, and innate values” and “how your skills will transfer into a new job.” She urges her clients to “downplay the mommy role” and focus on transferable professional skills gained through participation in professional and civic organizations.

Ann Crittenden, author of If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, takes a different perspective. According to Crittenden, parenting skills are transferable to the workplace and the lessons of leadership can be learned from children.

“The difference between being a parent and managing adults is not all that different,” Crittenden commented. “Motherhood is truly complex and highly skilled.”

Crittenden said that management experts and trainers are teaching the very same people skills that are recommended in popular baby books. Key examples of transferable skills include the ability to multitask, emotional intelligence and the ability to negotiate, motivational skills, and the ability to maintain a good perspective in emotionally charged situations.

So should you include these skills on your resume or mention it in your interview? “It depends,” said Crittenden. “You need to size up who is interviewing you. You can use a really creative resume if you have an interviewer who seems to ‘get it’.” She said that today’s climate is not yet the time to “brag” about your accomplishments as a mother in an interview but “past the time when you have to totally hide it.”

In her book, Crittenden urges women to create several resumes — a traditional skills-based resume and a functional resume that focuses on the administrative and management skills gained through parenting.

4. Volunteering: “Making a Difference” While Building Your Resume

Wilcox advises transitioning career-seekers to volunteer for an organization and include these experiences on a resume. Volunteer work can be a way to update your skills and establish professional contacts

“My suggestion for mothers is to think about how to portray their non-employed status. Have they been leveraging or maintaining their skills in a non-profit in any way? Have they taken any courses to keep themselves abreast of technological advancements and industry change?” asked Wilcox. “If not, I suggest they think about how they can start applying those skills in a volunteer status while they look at how they can put themselves better abreast of industry developments.”

“By volunteering, you leverage and maintain your skill set in a new capacity,” Wilcox explained.

Volunteer opportunities can be invaluable, according to Blackwell, and you can sometimes meet a mentor at the organization who can help you with your career search.

Those with a flair for writing may want to try to publish an article in a professional publication, newspaper, or Website. Career-changers may want to volunteer to research and write an article related to their desired new career for a local newspaper. The resulting article will give them a degree of instant credibility and the opportunity to make contacts with the people interviewed for the article.

Transitioning career-seekers may want to consider volunteer opportunities in nearly every industry and interest category that are available nationwide through USA Freedom Corps. Prospective volunteers can enter their industry category and zip code to access volunteer opportunities. Parents with young children may want to consider a “virtual” volunteering opportunity so that they can stay home and volunteer online while gaining valuable professional experience.

5. Should You Step Backwards?

Yes, no, maybe … this might be the $64,000 question. “Sometimes you have to go backwards,” Blackwell said, but it depends. Most parents should not have to go backwards or accept a lower level job if they maintained or started a good network and have done their research. However, some women may willingly seek a lower-level job if it offers a more flexible work schedule or if they are switching career fields.

“I’m a firm believer that women should not even think they have to start over at entry level after being in the workforce,” Dunagan stated.

Dunagan emphasized that the transitioning career-seeker needs a well-defined strategy, a clear assessment of what the market looks like, and strong self-marketing skills to re-enter the workforce without going back to entry-level status.

Some transitioning career-seekers may need to obtain additional credentials or experience. It is often advisable to take some relevant courses to update your skills, Blackwell said, but not necessarily another degree. A short course may be available to update your skills in some fields.

A transitioning seeker making a career change to a new profession that requires specific credentials may to need to go back to school or get additional training, Dunagan said.

However, Dunagan cautions women to carefully consider the reasons and the cost involved for additional training or education. A transitioning career-seeker may want to consult with people in her network and see if the additional education is necessary or desirable.

6. Remember Me? Consider Contacting Your Former Employer

Dunagan urges her clients to make their first stop at the former place of work if they liked their job and the company.

“Most companies will find it easier to hire someone back instead of starting from scratch, especially if they performed well,” Dunagan said.

Wilcox agrees. “Chances are if you worked well for them five years ago, they will still value you.”

7. Work-life Balance is critical with a baby on board

Let’s face it. Many parents may not want to work the same long hours that they did before. It is important to decide if you want to work full-time or part-time, or do consulting or contractual work. Transitioning career-seekers may want to look for a position with a flexible schedule and telecommuting options.

A good place to look for these opportunities is with former employers, according to Dunagan. One of Dunagan’s former clients found a job in human resources in an IT company after being a stay-at-home parent for five years. She negotiated a flexible schedule, telecommuting set-up and a job description that she was very satisfied with. This woman essentially created her own position by reactivating her connection with her former boss.

“As the result of her relationship, they were able to bring this stay-at-home mom back to the company… and it allowed the returning mother to honor her values — continuing to spend time with her children,” Dunagan explained.

8. Give it Time

It may take 3-6 months or longer to re-enter the professional job force, according to Blackwell. Blackwell advises her clients to make a regular schedule for a job search — perhaps one hour a day, nearly every day.

“Gather your resources, get out of the house and meet people, and prepare for a longer haul… excellent preparation is the key to building bridges toward work,” Blackwell said.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Sharon Reed Abboud is a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer, specializing in career and education issues.

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