It has been two months since my family returned from our three year European adventure. I knew the hardest thing about returning to the United States was finding a job…in my field, at the level I left, and at the salary that I was making previously. As I wrote in January, the research data shows that it is almost impossible to return to the working world at the seniority, professional level, and salary you were getting before you stepped away to take care of kids, parents, or whatever. The data is against us.
In my experience, the data is at least partially right. But before I fill you in on my results, I want to share some tips that proved helpful in my search.
Network! Rule No. 1 of job hunting: reach out to your social circle, friends in your adult sports team, the postman, ANYONE. You never know who might know someone. I was emailing people left and right even before we returned to the States to set up meetings, coffee talks, or online chats to discuss the current status of my field, learn about potential professional opportunities, or just pick up the latest industry gossip.
Know What You Want and Who You Are! So you want to network, but what do you say? In less than 30 seconds, you need to clearly state who you are, your strengths, and the type of job you are looking for, preferably with minimal industry-specific jargon. Think of it as being your own public relations expert who is selling YOU, your skills, and goals. My “PR pitch” highlights my experience in international affairs while stressing my desire for a deputy project manager or chief of staff-type role. Check out Career Sidekick’s great article for specific tips.
Be Active! Spending all your time on the internet searching and applying for jobs is futile at best. I found that when you apply to a job online you are lucky to get an email rejection back. (And for my soapbox moment of the day: if you take the time to complete a job application, the least a company can do is respond saying yes we are interested, or no we aren’t. The lack of politeness on the part of companies to potential employees is beyond awful.) So when you find a job you want to apply to, avoid having it end up in the resume abyss by checking LinkedIn to see if you know anyone at that company—or even have a friend of a friend—who is willing to forward your resume to the hiring manager. Added bonuses for you both: your friend can potentially offer a word of support for your application, and some companies offer credit to employees who help identify talent. I employed this tactic a few times, but admittedly even then only heard back from a recruiter once.
If you follow these steps, you’ll hopefully end up with an offer or two. The big question then is, do you take any job or do you wait for the right one?
I miss the working world. Plain and simple. Sure, being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) has been rewarding: I’ve been able to witness my child evolve on a daily basis. But since my first day of maternity leave, I have missed—no, I think the word is ached—for the professional world. That was two-plus years ago. I have been out of the professional game for that long and I’m freaked out that no employer in my field will want me. Why? Because research by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that only 73% of highly qualified women who wanted to return to work were able to do so, and just 40% of those landed a regular full-time job.
And you wonder why I’m freaked out about not finding a job?!?! I’m already starting with people perceiving me negatively. Or even worse, not even perceiving me at all.
As much as I’m aching to go back to the working world, I am filled with dread. No matter what I read about companies touting their reputations of wanting to hire SAHMs, or others who took a break from the professional world, I firmly believe this is a crock of bologna. A Harvard Business Journal articlebacks up my gut feeling. In a study that kept popping up all over the internet, Kate Weisshaar, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill found that, “The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback.”
But even more telling, Weisshaar
found that people viewed both unemployed applicants and stay-at-home applicants as less capable than continuously employed applicants, perhaps thinking their skills had become rustier while they were not working. Respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job, and — the biggest penalty — less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants.
Weisshaar, “Stay-at-Home Moms Are Half as Likely to Get a Job Interview as Moms Who Got Laid Off.” Harvard Business Review, 22 Feb 2018.
Gap on your resume: So, do I include this two-plus year gap on my resume or not? The jury is split on this one. Some suggest a “functional” resume format, which allows individuals to play up skills and downplay dates and gaps, `a la this Monster.com article. However, others recommend against this as hiring managers may perceive it as “hiding something.” Others advocate listing the time as SAHM on your resume, complete with skills – like multitasking, budgeting, operating under pressure – that comes with full-time parenting, but some hiring managers strongly recommend against this, even demeaning it as ‘cutsie.’ For myself, I’ve decided not to include the gap or even mention parenting on my resume. Rather, in cover letters and interviews I will highlight:
Our family’s decision to live overseas, with all its benefits
Regular engagement with former contacts
That I continued to read up on developments in my field
Volunteer work I’ve done
Know your strengths:I recently had the opportunity to sit down with two of my favorite mentors/bosses, or as I prefer to call them, “she-ros”, to discuss strategies. They both said that I need to know my strengths so I know what to play up in networking and interviews; and as former supervisors, they are the perfect ones to point out my strengths. They held up a mirror that allowed me to better appreciate what I would be good at, which will help me in my search. By asking the question, they also helped me prepare for a favorite interview question: “What are your strengths?” Best of all, former bosses who understand your strengths make for great references.
Network, Network, Network: During these years away, I regularly emailed my former colleagues, clients and contacts. It was just to keep me in the minds of these people, kind of like me waving a loud “Hi! Remember me?!?!?!” In many of these emails I remind people that I’ll be coming back in the summer of 2019 and will be job hunting. If you haven’t networked or kept in contact with people, start with friends and family members. Let them know you are looking—be as specific as possible regarding what you are looking for. See who they know.
In addition, I updated my LinkedIn profile regularly to show contacts, recruiters, and potential employers that I am still actively tracking the field. If you aren’t familiar with LinkedIn, think of it of a 21st century Rolodex (and if you don’t know what a Rolodex is, hit up Dr. Google). I include articles that are of interest to others in my field and regularly comment on other contacts’ postings. I want them to know I’m still here and have value to add.
While writing this I stumbled upon The Mom Project. Its tag line, “we’re committed to helping women remain active in the workforce in every stage in their journey,” is a LinkedIn-esque website for Fortune 500 companies and women who want to work for them. What a great idea! Time to create a profile.
A Job is a Job: One of my she-ros reminded me that she took an interim job at a retail store after leaving a job without having a new one lined up. She had a very difficult time finding a job that was fit for her, as she is a top brass in her field. For us Type As, that’s a hard one on the ego. But, she said it was one of the best times she had. She successfully balanced part-time work and job hunting/networking. And, money is money; every little bit helps. Especially if you’re facing the chicken/egg conundrum of exorbitant child-care costs.
So I’ve read the advice, I’ve got a plan, and still I am terrified about this search. The statistics are against me getting a job, in my field, at my level, at my salary grade. It drives me insane to know that in the 21st century we are still having to address the penalties of balancing motherhood with the professional world. So, dear reader, wish me luck! I will keep you updated of my search and any other tips I come across.
I am amazed by, and thankful for, Susan’s article on the biases parents face when they try to re-enter the workforce. Even as I am grief-stricken to learn how much bias is still out there. Even as I wonder, why haven’t more boutique career placement services, organizations like The Mom Project but keyed to geographical or functional economies, popped up to serve the market of women with amazing skills seeking to bring those skills back to the workplace? Good luck, Susan – and keep us informed! And to the rest of you, if you’ve made the leap back into a career and want to share your story, or if you see interesting data about the back-to-work challenges SAHPs face, or if you know of groups seeking to address this gut-punch bias, please, please share it with us! Share the links in the comments here, or stick the articles to our Facebook page.
Thank you, Susan, for all of your research. I know it sounds cutesy, but man, it would be great to explain to prospective employers how your multi-tasking abilities improved whilst shopping at Target with toddlers – how you got everything on the list, kept screaming tots amused with dollar bin finds, and managed to have a 30 second conversation with another mom in passing. The next sales meeting with President Cranky Pants will be a walk in the park! My friends who have returned to the workforce after stepping away to raise kids for a while have had a broad range of experiences with getting back in. Some of them more discouraging than others. But, parenthood has shown us how resilient and creative we are – and I look forward to hearing more about your experience, Susan. You’re gonna be someone’s she-ro!
Who else freezes in horror, stumbling through a mumbled response to this simple question? Show of hands?
It USED to be so clear cut, right?
“Oh, I’m a student.”
“I’m a professional.”
“I’m a parent.”
A nice short sound-bite – just the kind of response people expect. That people want.
It’s a question I’ve come to dread. I’ve spent way too much time trying to think of ways to ask this without stumbling into a minefield of assumptions. (If you’ve got good ones, SHARE THEM in the comments, PLEASE!) And only slightly more time trying to figure out how to distill what I do now into something that is comprehensible to most other Americans in under 30 seconds. (I’m a stay-at-home-parent but I also do freelance consulting in the realm of political risk and network analysis specializing in the Middle East and Africa *breath* AND I’m trying to launch a writing career. Wait, I see from your expression that I’ve lost you. Was it at ‘stay-at-home’ or ‘freelance consulting’?)
Here’s the thing though: study after study indicates that the U.S. population is increasingly working from home, and will continue to trend that way. Which means that even more of us are going to find it challenging to answer the question. At least in a tidy little soundbite. Do you admit that you work from home? Do you define yourself by that? Or by your title? Do you acknowledge a hybrid-ness to who you are?
Because as soon as you’re not in the office, more of your personal life is going to creep into your day. Which is a great thing! There are efficiency gains to be had all over the place! No more time lost in commutes. The laundry can get done while you’re on that phone call. More free time to spend doing fun things with the family instead of running errands that couldn’t be done during regular working hours. And as working hours become more flexible, the chance to pursue other passions, becomes possible in a way it frequently isn’t if you’re tied to a desk 40+ rigid hours a week.
The flip side of the coin, though, is that people are going to struggle with how to arrange that time and how they identify themselves (more on both of these issues in subsequent posts).
A couple of things to consider, both when you’re trying to determine how much information to throw into your soundbite, and even more when you’re trying to unpack the answer someone else gives you: