Carol Fishman Cohen was 30 and on maternity leave from Drexel Burnham Lambert when the investment banking firm imploded in February 1990. A Harvard Business School grad in the Boston office’s corporate finance group, she didn’t agonize about leaving her high-powered job. She picked up part-time special project work off and on. Soon she had another baby, and then another and another. Married to a lawyer, she spent five years working part-time and six years caring for her kids full-time.
7 Keys to Rejoining the Workforce After a Long Break
After 11 years she realized she was ready to head back to work full-time. So she dove into a job search, and through a former colleague at Drexel she landed a position in Bain Capital’s high-yield-debt management group. But what seemed like a great fit didn’t work out. Not because she missed being at home with the kids but because in her time away from work her interests had changed.
She used to love financial analysis and modeling. Now, she realized, she preferred to work with people, meet with management and write up her opinions. “I skipped one of the most important steps in my career re-entry strategy,” she says. “You have to make sure you do a career assessment.”
Assessing career options has become step No. 3 in a seven-step process Cohen wound up designing along with another Harvard Business grad, Vivian Steir Rabin. They are the cofounders of iRelaunch, a company in Newton, Mass., that runs conferences, events and virtual coaching sessions for people re-entering the workforce after a break. Cohen and Rabin also wrote a book, Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work. Like Cohen, Rabin took time away from full-time work. She spent seven years at home and had five kids before heading back out as a headhunter and then teaming up with Cohen.
First, Cohen and Rabin suggest, you should analyze your decision to go back to work. That can seem like an overwhelming and confusing task if you’ve been at home with kids or caring for an elderly relative. So they suggest breaking down your analysis. First, what is your appetite for work right now? How much do you want to work, in your gut? Second, what are your child care or elder care responsibilities? What sort of support do you have from your spouse, family and friends?
Once you’ve made the decision to go back to work, start gathering your confidence. Stay-at-home moms in particular lose faith in their ability to appear professional. Cohen suggests practicing your career pitch and elevator speech on nonjudgmental friends and family.
Next, assess your career options. That was the step Cohen failed to take herself, when she jumped into the job at Bain. The longer you’re away from work, she says, the more you need to determine whether your interests and skills have changed. For those who weren’t terribly happy in their jobs before they took a break, this is all the more important. “For those people, the break is a gift,” Cohen says.
To the extent you decide to stick with your old skills, update them. For Cohen this meant cracking open her business school finance textbook. Consider taking a course or doing a certificate program.
Then there is the evergreen of career advice: Network. The most crucial message to deliver when you’re re-entering the workforce is how you are champing at the bit to return to work. Your high level of enthusiasm will set you apart from everyone else in the networking crowd. Yes, you’ve taken a break from work, but it has made you all the more eager to attack a new opportunity with vigor.
Do share your job search and ambitions with your family, including your kids, Cohen advises. Your little ones should not be surprised when you accept a job offer. Tell them early on that your decision to go back to work is not a rejection of them in any way. Let them know that you’re excited about making the most of a part of yourself that you put on hold for awhile.
Lastly, if that first job after your break makes you unhappy, leave it. Even if you’re working out of financial necessity, don’t settle for something you can’t stand. Keep looking. That’s how Cohen found her way to a rewarding career running her own business.
This is an update of a story that appeared previously.
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