Finding a new job is never easy, but for Elaine Thomson it seemed particularly daunting. After leaving the workforce 14 years ago to be a full-time mother, Elaine was now ready to return to work. But she wondered if any office would be willing to take her.
Apart from her technical skills which had surely turned a bit rusty over the years, she had to also contend with the fact that she was now 47, not an age when many would consider returning to the workforce.
"I used to be a senior secretary in a multi-national bank, but that was before the average person had even heard of e-mail, PowerPoint or Excel," she says. "We were using floppy disks at the time. I had always intended to return to work, but I could never decide when the right moment was.
By the time I had made up my mind, the toddlers I stayed home for were in high school. Then I felt I had missed the boat. Who would want me now? I was embarrassed to even apply. I didn't know where to start." This is Elaine's experience, but countless women can relate.
The fear factor
Women often put good careers on hold for family reasons. It is common for the "short" break to stretch to five, seven or even a 10 years. Equally common is the huge loss of professional confidence that follows.
No matter how simple or high-tech their previous profession, women all admit that the prospect of returning is scary.
"Fear is the biggest stumbling block of a re-entry candidate. The longer the break, the greater her fear," says Daniel Ough, careers expert and founder- director of www.jobsearch.com.
"It's actually a mix of feelings: that she's lost her professional edge, that her knowledge is rusty and outdated, or that there is a gap in her CV.
Although these women work amazingly hard at home, they are nervous about coping with office work again. Some feel they are too old or dread working for a younger boss. And of course, almost all of them are terrified of the changes in technology.
"This low self-worth will sabotage your job search. It's important to identify exactly what you are afraid of so you can tackle the problem and remove the fear," says Daniel.
Women also feel that taking time off for childcare attracts a negative bias. As one woman expresses it on a blog for mothers, "You feel branded! Employers seem to think you can either be nurturing or competent. But you can't be both."
Despite these concerns, there is good news. Taking a few years off does not have to finish your career. Women who have substantial work experience are re-launching themselves successfully.
One example is Anita Gupta (see sidebar), who has a top-notch MBA degree and is currently senior portfolio manager with a major bank in the UAE. Seeing her today, it's hard to believe that Anita had given up working for six years to be a full-timemother.
Planning and preparation
"It is certainly possible to pick up a career again," insists Daniel. "But it is like running a marathon; you can't say ‘I'll do it next week'. It needs planning, preparation and re-packaging of yourself. Be prepared to put in time and effort.''
In fact, experts suggest that you follow a game plan even in your years at home. Close to your return, a plan of action is vital.
Even if you are eager to start work, sending off job applications is not the ideal first step. The first thing you need is clarity of purpose. Are you sure that you and the family are ready for your return to work? Do you have dependable child-care? Being in two minds doesn't lead to success.
Nina*, for example, had second thoughts after she re-trained herself, got a new diploma, arranged childcare and even landed the job she wanted. "Once I had the job offer, I suddenly felt that working from nine to six, six days a week, just wasn't my thing anymore! I wasn't ready to commit that much time. The diploma prepared me for the technical part of the work, but it didn't take care of other considerations."
Nina is now starting her own business where she can keep her own hours.
Once you are determined to return, it's time to re-evaluate yourself as a worker. Make a list of your marketable skills and experience, including anything new that you've learned off-the-job.
What can you offer an employer?
Another point to consider: do you really want to go back to the work you did before? "Over time, one's driving factors, values and priorities change.
So do your ideas of job satisfaction. Don't blindly return to your old career," warns Daniel.
Now, you may prefer higher or lower responsibility, more life-work balance, a different position or even a different industry. If you ever planned to turn a talent into a profession or start your own business, this could be your moment to do so.
Will a career change waste all your past experience? "Not necessarily. Some of your existing skills may be transferable," says Daniel. Transferable skills are those you learnt through previous jobs, hobbies, or even volunteer work, but which can be used in your new line of work. Examples of easily transferable skills: managing manpower, organising events, accounting, research or communication.
Once you are sure of the work you plan to do, find out what basic and premium qualifications it calls for. How do you measure up? Don't guess. Check against wanted ads, ask people in similar jobs.
"Some of your skills may now be obsolete," says Daniel. "The workplace changes every few years, especially in fast-moving industries. Over time, even school-teaching methods change."
To gain new qualifications and update old skills, you may have to attend classes. If classes are not available in your region, consider correspondence courses. Find out if a charity or private office will let you do an internship, to practice your new learning.
To strengthen computer skills, surf the internet for practise tutorials. Read up on what is happening in your field. Sounds like too much trouble? Well, re-inventing yourself is never easy.
When you're looking for a re-entry point, networking is a great tool. In addition to scouring wanted ads, talk selectively to ex-colleagues, friends and family. "Some people shy away from networking, as they think it means asking someone for a job," notes Daniel. "That's not correct.
Networking is telling people what your goal is, and asking if they have any ideas, suggestions or advice to give you."
There is so much you can ask insiders! How has the work changed since you left? What new skills are in demand? What are the working conditions like? Which firms are good to work for? Who is recruiting right now? Remember, many vacancies are filled by word of mouth even before they can be advertised.
Updating your CV
Much can be said about creating a powerful CV. But here, let's focus on that scary gap in your CV and the temptation to gloss over it. That's not a recommended strategy! "State honestly that you took time off to focus on other duties," says Daniel.
"Progressive employers accept the fact that you are trying to achieve a balance. But they do need assurance that you are now ready and qualified to resume."
What if your work history is too uneven and doesn't add up to any clear career path? Put aside the standard time-line format.
Instead, put your CV in a functional format. Present your experience under function and skill subheads. This way, you can highlight the skills that fit the job you are targeting.
Your CV can be honest yet impressive if you can show that you did not neglect your skills base during the gap. Your CV can include your activities in the gap years, if relevant to the job. For instance, if you raised funds for a cause or were president of the PTA, mention it and specify what you achieved.
Facing the interview
Re-entry candidates have unique interview jitters. What if they think they are too old? What if they ask if they can work overtime? Daniel advises that you not be too defensive. "Prepare by putting yourself in the employer's place. Imagine all the questions you would ask a candidate like yourself.
Prepare honest answers that will reassure them. Say you understand their concern. Explain how you have updated yourself and how you do have reliable childcare. It helps if you can show that you kept up your professional self during the break."
To dress for the interview, observe working women in similar jobs to get an idea of current office-wear. If you don't see yourself in the role, nobody else will. Daniel advises that you
attend every interview call even if it's just for practice. Then you can ace the one you really want.
Finally, unless you are exceptional, it's probably unrealistic to expect to re-enter your career at the level you left.
To get back into the mainstream, you may have to start at a relatively lower level and prove yourself again. Otherwise, the employer might find you over-priced. It seems sad, but that is the strategy recommended by career experts.
*Names have been changed.
Banker Anita Gupta (right) had an MBA and eight years' experience in finance when she took a break for family reasons. She planned a two-year break, but ended up staying home for six.
"I was so involved with kids and home," she recalls. "Some of my friends didn't even know I had been a working woman. But whenever I met my MBA mates with rising careers, I felt I was capable of doing more with my life.
When the kids started full-time school, I decided to go back to work." By that time Anita was 36. "I had lost a sense of what my qualifications and past experience were worth. I felt unfamiliar with the financial world in Dubai and clueless about the new technology. I struggled in confusion for three months.
"I decided to make a fresh start and use the opportunity to change tracks. Before, I had worked on the finance side of the hotel industry but I was always interested in banking, especially asset management."
Anita decided to prepare herself for the change. "I did a tremendous amount of reading on the internet to learn about company law and systems in this country. It helped that my husband was also a banker."
Looking back, she feels she took some right steps in her years at home. "I always kept up with business and finance news, even when I wasn't working. While in the UK, I briefly took a part-time bank job offered to women with kids, even though I was overqualified for it. Working three hours a day in a small bank didn't teach me much. But it did keep me energised. And when I was interviewed for a banking job in the UAE, I think it added to my credibility as a professional person."
Although new to hardcore banking, Anita was sure of her transferable skills: she is numeric by nature and trained in mathematical analysis. She had negotiating skills and management experience. She was offered the job, but she did have to take a strategic step down.
"I knowingly made a big compromise: I accepted a position and a salary lower than what I had left years ago! It didn't feel very good, but I thought it would give me an entry point and time to learn. The work hours were also attractive – they finished at 3 pm.
I negotiated that if they found me capable, they would double my salary in six months. And they did!
"That was seven years ago. At work, I have been given many opportunities to learn and perform. Today, I feel I've regained my rightful seniority. I think it's fair to take a step down when re-entering.
After all, there is a gap in your knowledge. It's a sort of price you pay!
"I believe that women who resume careers do have their plus points. They have a good work ethic, multitasking ability and maturity. If a woman has solid work experience, I would encourage her to revive her career. But I would say, keep up your knowledge and come back with a full commitment!"
After a 14-year break, Elaine Thomson (right) didn't know how to start looking for re-employment. But unknowingly, she took all the right steps, including networking.
"I invited my friends over for a coffee morning to brainstorm how I should start my job hunt. At first, it was just for laughs, then it began to seem possible."
Working friends pointed out Elaine's marketable skills: she was an experienced secretary, an efficient organiser, good at multitasking, willing to learn new things, a team worker and a ‘people person'.
But Elaine decided not to return to a fast-moving corporate office. "I felt I would no longer fit in. My more recent experience was as a parent, very involved with school activities.
I felt a school office or an institution would suit me better – a manageable pace and working hours that suited my family. I decided to narrow my search to such openings."
Creating her CV was yet another battle, recalls Elaine. "I didn't even know what a modern CV looks like! And how to explain my 14-year gap? Unless I said I fell into a coma and just woke up!"she laughs.
Elaine upgraded her computer skills under the guidance of her teenage son and then the time came to send the applications out. Within a week, Elaine was interviewed for a position at the Dubai Centre For Special Needs. "Of course I panicked. I also realised I had no proper interview suit!"
During the interview, Elaine was honest about her long gap but confident about being right for a special-needs school. And she got the job! Since starting, Elaine has used the school holidays to learn more computer skills. Today, nearly a year later, she says, "I'm glad I overcame my hesitation. I have found the right place for me!"