Conquering the Job Search After a Long-Term Absence

Returning to work after an extended absence is tough. Your network's stale. Your expertise is rusty. People wonder whether you're committed.

Shannon (name has been changed) encountered this challenge. At 32, she had advanced professionally from health care consulting to investment management, with an MBA in the middle. That's when she had children, moved overseas with her husband, stopped working, and then returned to a different city in the US. At 50, Shannon was a divorced mother without a job for the past 12 years. She needed to restart her career.

Shannon was in a tough spot. The usual job search tactics were her starting point, but she had to do a lot more.

Throughout her time away from work, Shannon had kept up with the business and IT side of health care. She used that as her target. She enrolled in a six-month online certification program that focused on medical records' regulation. Few people were on top of the big changes that she predicted were under way, and her goal was to become an expert. That expertise would be at the heart of her new personal value proposition (PVP). She then found a low-paid, part-time job working with a nonprofit agency that was planning implementation of these policies in her city.

You can show you're serious, capable, and excited like Shannon by pursuing a specific target. It suggests you know something concrete. That's true for any job search, but it's critical if you've had a long absence. Potential employers will be skeptical, and a specific target can relieve that skepticism. All job seekers' targets must be plausible and typically in a field related to their prior work experience. An unrelated target will make a difficult job search much harder.

Shannon's certification and part-time job also resolved any potential concern an employer may have had regarding her capabilities. Retuning your skills in the target area shows you haven't "gone soft" and that you can reengage aggressively at work.

Taking on coursework and additional experience wasn't Shannon's only strategy. She also thought about her strengths. Where she'd stood out in her earlier work was in helping senior-ranked people understand issues, listen to each other, and make decisions. With the coming changes in health care and IT, she knew people would value that strength if they saw it. She emphasized this in her PVP and resume. In interviews, she demonstrated her listening skills — allowing people to see firsthand that she could facilitate tough meetings.

Shannon recreated a professional network, beginning with social acquaintances and then moving on to people from local health care companies that were introduced to her. She laid out a structured schedule of emails and phone calls leading to meetings with relevant people in town.

If you've been out of work for a long time like Shannon, the people you knew professionally aren't linked to you like they used to be. Some have moved on. You'll have to create a new network. Begin with people you now know socially and with people you worked with before. Ask for ideas. Ask them to point you to others in your field. Don't be bashful or worried about being forward.

Throughout this entire process, Shannon was transparent. While networking and in interviews, she initiated open discussions of why she had stopped working, which helped her demonstrate confidence, honesty, and resolve. Her story made sense, and people wanted to help.

Like Shannon, you should be clear in your discussions about why you've taken a break from work. This includes being straightforward on your resume. De-emphasizing dates to cover the gaps or skimming over these details in conversations can make employers suspicious and make you look evasive. They may imagine reasons for your absence that — from their perspective — are worse than what actually happened.

In three months, Shannon landed two strong offers. One person making an offer observed Shannon's apparent passion. He saw it in her narrow target, study program, part-time job, and the way she interviewed.

If you take away something from Shannon's story, let it be these four lessons: pursue a specific target, retune your skills, recreate your network, and be transparent. Easier said than done? Certainly. But these activities can work for most people, as long as you're willing to do more than what goes into the average job search.

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