Personal Finance
Tips for workforce re-entry
May 11, 2001: 8:56 a.m. ET

Going back to work after several years poses unique challenges for women
By Staff Writer Shelly K. Schwartz
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - As professional challenges go, workforce re-entry is a big one.

Hurling yourself back into the job market after a multi-year hiatus is at once empowering and intimidating. The prospect alone raises a host of issues, from the loss of employable skills and networking contacts to general uncertainty over the position level at which your career will resume.

Not surprisingly, it's a dilemma that plagues women the most. In dual-income families, women are the ones who tend to put their careers on hold to care for young children and sick parents.

Workforce re-entry, of course, also becomes a factor when displaced homemakers are forced into the job market after losing a spouse or getting a divorce.

"When you're away for a few years you may feel you don't have much to offer or you may feel less confident," said Marcia Brumit Kropf, vice president of research and information services for Catalyst, a New York-based research organization created to advance women in business.

She adds: "I think the biggest challenge has to do with how much you separate yourself from the workplace when you decide to stay home for a few years. You may stop interacting with your professional network and you may not stay up-to-date on the changes that occur in your field."


Such scenarios are a particular handicap in today's tightening employment landscape, where corporate layoffs hit the headlines almost daily.

According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement services firm in New York, some 572,000 pink slips have been handed out so far this year. That's nearly three times higher than the 179,000 layoffs announced during the same period last year.

The sectors hardest hit have been technology, manufacturing (including automotive) and retail. Retailers are a major employer of working women.

John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger Gray & Christmas, however, said he's witnessed a sea change in the perception of working mothers who take time off to raise kids.

"For most of the 20th century, if you were educated and left the workplace to have kids, you were confined to administrative roles when you came back five or 10 years later," he said. "But that's been disappearing over the last few years as companies start to recognize that they can find highly talented people who made the decision to spend the first years of their children's lives being at home."

Click here for's special Mother's Day report on "Moms at Work."

Playing the game ... again

According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 40 percent of all women in the workforce are mothers with children under 18 years of age.

Other data from the National Science Foundation and J. Glass & L. Riles, reveals that 83 percent of new mothers return to the labor force within six months of childbirth and 17 percent quit.

For those who quit with the intention of rejoining their colleagues in a few years, the good news is there are ways to ease the transition. It starts with being prepared.

"You might have to manage your expectations," said Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family in Rockville, Md. "You can't expect to be up to speed right away. You might have to ease back in and take some classes or even enter at a lower level than you thought. You should be braced for that."

Same goes when it comes to calculating the cost of returning to work. Oddly enough, it costs money to work.

Those costs include transportation, a professional wardrobe, dry cleaning, child care services and any additional help you'll need to hire to clean the house and care for your lawn.

Don't forget, too, to factor in a larger budget for meals since lunches at the office usually cost more than sandwiches made at home. You're much more likely to spend more on convenience foods and ready-made dinners at the grocery store since you'll have more money than time.

And that doesn't include the cost of any training courses or catch-up classes you'll need to take to plug the holes in your technological expertise. A lot's changed if you've been out of the loop for 10 years or more.

"Anyone working (in a dual-income family) should do this anyway," Essex said. "Sit down and figure that out because if you don't love your work if may not be worth it to go back. That's less of an issue for people who like their jobs. Money is a nice part of it, but it's not the major issue. There has to be a desire."

Steps to success

For starters, employment specialists say you need not agonize over the time gap on your resume.

Most employers understand the importance of family and the choices parents make. Those that don't aren't likely to be flexible enough to accommodate your needs anyway. After all, you'll still need to take an occasional day off to pick up a sick child from school or attend a doctor's appointment.

"I wouldn't over-explain this," said Brumit Kropf. "I don't think people need to apologize for it."

A simple "I was at home with my children" will suffice during the interview process, she said. And the references you'll have from your most recent employer should provide any extra ammunition you'll need.

You do, however, want to take the opportunity to advocate your skills. Chances are if you've been a stay-at-home mom for many years, you've acquired new talents that are valuable to your resume and can help you land a job.

"Women who are home full-time are not home full-time doing house work," Brumit Kropf said. "They are usually contributing a lot to the community. So anyone who has been home for a period of time should be looking at what kind of work contributions they've been making to their synagogue or church, the junior league or a charitable organization. Maybe they did a little financial management or fundraising. Employers are looking for demonstrable skills."

Back in gear

If you've been out of the loop for 10 years or more, you might want to consider training course that will get you back up to speed.


You'll need to know your way around a computer, for starters, including e-mail and Internet technology, not to mention a basic proficiency with the latest office software such as Microsoft Word and Excel.

This does not mean you'll need to head back for another degree. Most colleges and universities, especially community colleges, offer continuing education courses geared specifically for adults who need to brush up on old skills or learn a new trade. Many also offer distance-learning courses nowadays that allow you to complete course work at home and on your own schedule.

Such classes typically require only a few hours per week and cost as little as $200. A good way to get started is to call up your local community colleges and universities and ask for a catalog of course options.

If you're in a rapidly evolving line of work, including science and computer technology, or even the legal and medical professions, you'll likely need to go a step further. Finding work in those fields as a sales representative can even be tough, since the products will have changed.

After a certain number of years, teachers also require new state certifications.

More intensive college credit courses that can cost several thousand dollars per semester are generally required if you've been out of the field for many years, and in some cases a new degree might be necessary.

"The workplace is continually evolving and people may wonder whether you have the technical skills needed to work in today's office environment and if you understand the latest regulations," Brumit Kropf said. "You want to be very upfront about any courses you have taken."

Brush up on interviewing skills

You'll also need to start preparing for the standard interview questions that seem to spring eternal from human resources departments. A few that should get you started: What are your best qualities? Why do you want to work for this company? Why should we hire you?

But also come armed with a positive attitude and a readiness to communicate that you're the one they should hire. Practice selling yourself before you go.

Remember, landing a job is only half about your experience level and education. A good personality that fits well with the corporate culture is equally important.

Networking power

Networking is especially important for women who have let their workplace contacts slip while they've been away. A good place to get started is to contact any old work buddies you may have to let them know you're ready for action.

Next, move on to friends and family.

"Sit down and make a running list of people you know in your personal life, especially people in your field or the industry you're interested in," said Brumit Kropf. "You don't necessarily have to ask them for a job, but meet with them. Ask for their recommendations and ask if they know of anybody you should talk to. World of mouth surfaces a great deal of information."

Easing in

No one says you have to make a splash in your first month back.

It sometimes helps to ease back into the office environment through part-time work and freelance gigs. This can help to rebuild your confidence and, perhaps more importantly, it'll give you a good idea of what it'll be like to be away from home again during the workweek.

You'll get a sense of how well you'll be able to juggle your work-life responsibilities without a long-term commitment.

According to the American Staffing Association, some 79 percent of temporary employees work full-time.

Thirty-three percent placed by staffing agencies said they prefer the alternative arrangement over traditional employment and 43 percent said they needed the flexibility to continue caring for their family.

"For a mother who has been out of the workforce raising her children an excellent first place to stop is a staffing firm who will help her do a skills inventory checklist," said Richard Wahlquist, executive vice president of the American Staffing Association. "She may have skills that even she can't identify that are in demand or she may need help picking up the skills she lacks."

The average assigned employee earns more than $10 per hour and some earn more than their permanent counterparts. Most staffing companies also offer health insurance and retirement plans as well as vacation and holiday pay.

At the same time, the industry provides free training. Some 4.8 million assigned employees, in fact, received skills training worth $720 million in 1997, the most recent year for which data are available.

Wahlquist notes that staffing firms act as both an advocate and counselor for employees and helps to market them to the business community. Most full-time temp workers go on to secure full-time employment, but not all want to.

"You may wish to not work on a full-time basis to begin with but to make the transition a little more gradually," Wahlquist said.

Those looking for temporary work may can check out the ASA's Web site at for a list of firms in their area.

A good resume

You'll have the most luck re-entering the workforce, of course, if your reputation precedes you. Solid references from employers past go a long way toward helping you get your foot back in the door.

With a little networking effort and training to boot, chances are good you'll be back in rush hour traffic before you know it.

Oh, if you haven't yet left your job to take a few years off but you intend to, one final piece of advice:

"When women tell me that they want to take some time off, I recommend that they stay involved with a professional association if they have one," Brumit Kropf said. "That's a place where they can have opportunities to learn and to continue developing a network of people who can help them find work later." graphic