Illustrations by Hanna Barczyk
As a student, Stephanie Schneider Minkove ’00 cared so much about work-life balance that she wrote her senior thesis on childcare and America’s working women. Two years later, in her first post-college job, as a management associate in human resources, that issue became personal after her son was born and she decided not to return to work. By 2016, though, she wanted to be back in the office: Her three kids were busy with school and extracurriculars, and her stint as PTA president had come to an end.
Within minutes of arriving at BCD, Minkove was in tears. “Making the decision to go back to work, deciding what to do, wondering what was I capable of doing — I was probably the most insecure I have been since I was a pre-teen,” she says, adding that she felt alone.
She needn’t have felt so isolated. Relaunchers — people re-entering the workforce after raising a family, providing elder care, attending to health issues, or deploying with a military spouse — are a growing segment of America’s population.
And it is absolutely possible to return to the workforce after a career gap, no matter how daunting it may seem, says Christine Valenza Shin ’84, Beyond Barnard’s senior associate director of advising and programs, who helps guide many graduates throughout the relaunch process. All that’s required is a plan.
Ask yourself a few critical questions
The first step in figuring out how to return to the workforce is to think about the type of work you want to do, says Elana Konstant ’99, whose career consulting firm, Konstant Change Coaching, advises many relaunchers. Konstant will ask a client: Full-time or part-time? Are you trying to go back to the industry you were in before or pivot into a new field?
Many alumnae reentering the workforce aren’t sure what type of work they’d like to do. So read job listings in areas of interest to figure out if what you want is realistic. Does a field require a degree that you do not have and will not pursue? Delete it from your list. “Cross off until you end up with a workable number of fields,” Konstant says.
Then, write down a list of what you do and do not want in a job and be sure to factor in the reality of your life. If transitioning to a full-time position would be too disruptive to your family, part-time may be better.
Also, decide if you’re open to a paid corporate re-entry internship (a “returnship”) that firms such as IBM and Johnson & Johnson have created for relaunchers. These programs allow you to sharpen skills and build confidence. iRelaunch, the organization that holds an annual Return to Work conference at Columbia University, has identified more than 90 companies around the world with returnship programs. And don’t worry about making coffee or copies: These positions are tailored to your skills and background.
A career coach can be instrumental during the self-assessment phase. Alumnae can also have an advising session with Shin. “I ask open-ended questions about what they want and their skills,” she says. Those questions can help her advisees to “start thinking of themselves as a professional person” again.
Get it down in writing: The résumé and LinkedIn
Next, put together a résumé and/or profile on the career networking website LinkedIn that you can show to interested contacts or potential employers.
For women with career gaps, an updated résumé may feel like the career kiss of death. It is not. You can fill in the empty spaces in three ways.
The first is to add entries for unpaid work that you have done. “One of my mottoes is ‘Unpaid does not mean unimportant,’” advises Konstant. “Say a woman is doing volunteer consulting for a small nonprofit and her background is in marketing. Perhaps she started a social media campaign or some other kind of viral marketing campaign to raise funds for an organization. That needs to go on her résumé.”
Describe your unpaid work in ways that will attract potential employers. These entries serve two purposes. One, they keep a résumé from looking dated. And two, they emphasize that even though you stopped collecting a paycheck, you did not stop amassing skills and experience.
If you haven’t done strategic volunteer work, hope is not lost. The second way for relaunchers to polish a résumé is to subdivide experience into two sections and lead with the skills that are applicable to the positions being pursued. “Say someone has communications experience, but it was interwoven with other skills or is from a long time ago,” says Shin. “If they are applying for a job where communication skills are relevant, group all of the communication experience from several positions into one entry. Then put the less relevant stuff together.”
Lastly, add recent coursework or certificate programs to your résumé. If a class required a field study, this should be its own entry.
While LinkedIn did not exist when many relaunchers left the workforce, Konstant considers it “a great way to express your new professional identity.” Be sure to include coursework and volunteering, as you did with your résumé. Because LinkedIn requires you to list your work experience in reverse chronological order, it may not be possible to group similar jobs together. Instead of panicking if that leaves a gap, know you can still attract employers with your summary statement. It has the most prominent position on the LinkedIn screen, making it the ideal place to share who you are. Write the statement in the first person and add a mix of personal and professional accomplishments. Include keywords and buzzwords that you see in job listings to show that you know how to speak directly to the position or industry. Only the first three lines are visible unless someone clicks to read more, so make them the most engaging. Beyond Barnard can help you to create this profile.
Develop your elevator pitch
Once you’ve put together your résumé and LinkedIn profile, it’s time to start networking, which means that you will be repeatedly asked, “What are you doing now?”
Think about your answer in advance and develop it into a concise statement that explains who you are and what you are looking for professionally. Practice this so-called elevator pitch out loud with friends, family or, in a pinch, your smartphone. Shin suggests using this script: “I’m looking to go back to work. I’m looking for work in the X field, but I’m also interested in Y.”
This approach indicates that you are focused but flexible. It encourages conversation. Over time, as you practice, your confidence will build.
Get out there and network
It may seem nonsensical to tell someone who has not worked for a decade — or who is entering a completely new field — to reach out to earlier professional contacts. But it may be the key to getting your next job. Relaunchers should use networking both to research fields they are interested in and to hear about openings.
Begin by drawing up a list of what Konstant calls “first-wave connections.” These are people you know either because you were co-workers or they are friends and family. Konstant advises sending out an email that reads, “I’m looking to get back into the workforce. As you know, my background is in X. Here are a few of my current ideas. I would love to know if you know anyone in these fields or at these particular companies, and I would greatly appreciate any feedback or information you might have.”
Next, move on to connecting with people you do not know who might work in fields that interest you. “LinkedIn is a fantastic research and networking tool,” Konstant explains.
When it is time to communicate in more detail, break out the elevator pitch. And while being flexible is key, there is one thing not to say: “I’m open to anything.” Says Shin, “The person you’re talking to will have no idea how to help.”
Ace every interview
The key to doing well on any job interview is being confident and prepared. This is no different for a relauncher — though her preparation may not look the same.
Before an interview, go through each entry on your résumé and come up with an anecdote about that position. It can be about a project that was a hit or other successes. Rehearse each anecdote aloud and be ready to use it in conversation during the interview. It will shift the discussion so that it is about your years of experience — and professional accolades — as opposed to how long it’s been since you had a job.
The question of why you have taken off so much time may be an elephant in the room, so own your story. Shin recommends practicing this (out loud, to other people) before an interview: “I wanted to take this time off for X reason. And the time off really crystallized my desire to move into Y field. It made me even more confident in my abilities and even more sure of this path. That’s why I’m sitting here in front of you today.” Statements like these show a potential employer that your decision comes from a place of confidence.
Once you’ve been offered a new job, it’s time to negotiate a salary. How much should you ask for?
Ask Christine Shin. As Beyond Barnard’s expert on the subject, she knows what certain industries pay and has the resources to find out about others. She can also help you reach out to alumnae already in the field. Internet sites like Glassdoor and the LinkedIn platform Salary can provide some guidance. And be aware that it’s now illegal in a growing number of cities and states for an employer to ask for your salary history. Once you know the market rate for your position, negotiate from there.
In a perfect world, women wouldn’t fear that they might have done something wrong by stepping out of the workforce. But as more relaunchers get on the job, employers are becoming aware of how all of the multitasking and organizational know-how they amassed outside the office makes them tremendous assets when they return. •
Ayana Byrd is an author who lives in Brooklyn and Barcelona.