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How to Overcome Your Employment Gap

Ten Tips for the Stay-at-Home Parent and More
By Susan M. Heathfield,

Concerned about getting back in the workforce after a gap in your employment? You should be when you consider the bad experiences some employers have had when they take a chance on people with a gap in their employment history. Additionally, the job market appears to have qualified candidates for most positions. How will your resume, with a one, five, or ten year employment gap, stack up against those of people who have been racking up career achievements and accomplishments for the same ten years?

Stay-at-home moms and dads who raise their children, rather than their expertise and visibility in a workplace, are the largest group to sport these resume gaps. Even a couple of years out of the workforce can devastate your career if you’re not careful. In worse case scenarios, you can become unemployable in your field. Even in best case scenarios, you will undoubtedly take a salary cut and find yourself reporting to someone who would formerly have reported to you.

This is not to say that returning to work is hopeless. There are plenty of people who have walked back into an executive job, developed their dream job or created a career change following chosen unemployment. It’s just that it’s harder for you with an employment gap. These tips will help you stay ready for employment while you raise the kids or take a few years for a non-work activity. It’s much better to spend that time preparing to be employable than to hit the job market cold after years at home. You'll be better prepared if you heed these tips.

Tips for Staying Employable During an Employment Gap
Work With Your Current Employer: Your current employer, assuming you are still working, may value you and your experience. Talk with your employer to identify potential part-time or consulting work or periodic assignments you can do during the years you plan to work less than full time. If you work in marketing, for example, perhaps you can do freelance work on brochures, the website or press releases. If you work in Human Resources, you may contract to update the employee handbook annually or teach a class periodically. This is the easiest way to stay grounded in the workplace during an extended leave. Make your best pitch before you leave your job. Don't hesitate to call, however, even if you have been off work for a period of time.

Build and Keep Your Network Before You Need It: It is easier to maintain current professional contacts than to build a new group a few years down the road. Professional contacts become dispersed to new positions; mentors retire; valued coworkers move on to new jobs. It is up to you to maintain relationships, sometimes for years, with people who will remember your talents when you decide to return to full-time employment. It is also imperative that you relate to friends and associates in your off-work life as an educated professional who has chosen to take time away from her career to raise a family. Talk about more than the children; make sure your friends know what you do professionally as well.

Stay Active in Professional Associations: Most career fields have professional associations that sponsor meetings, conferences, committees, training sessions and more for members. Stay active in your local association by attending meetings, writing for the newsletter, acting as a good will ambassador and attending national conferences. Volunteer for the activities that most closely match your career field and interests. Choose activities in which you’ll interact with many members to expand your network at the same time.

You can overcome an employment gap and the feared gap in your resume timeline. Use these tips to stay ready for the workforce even during an extended stay at home.
Volunteer in Community, School and Civic Organizations: Challenging volunteer work can help to fill the gaps in your resume whether you return to your original career or create a career change in the future. Do invest thinking time in determining what kinds of volunteer work will be the most strategic for your longer term goals. Serving as president of the school board is likely worth more, when you return to work, than sewing costumes for the school play. Do both if you have the time and energy – they fulfill different aspects of your spirit. Do think about how the volunteer work will appear on the resume and stress contributing in volunteerism related to your future employment.

Keep Your Resume File Updated: Keep track of new skills and activities you have developed and experienced during your time away from the workforce. Keep the resume file filled with notes about your volunteer work and other contributions. When you want to return to work, you’ll be happy you kept good records of the time you were unemployed.
Create a Small Business and Work Even a Few Hours a Week: Think creatively. A mom I know just left the workforce to spend time with her eleven-year-old daughter. She is launching an Internet home baked doggie treat business. Active for years in Greyhound associations, she has identified her initial customer base and plans to expand from there. Write for newspapers, magazines and businesses; write and edit an About site; develop marketing materials for organizations; sell your professional expertise as a consultant; make candles or other crafts; design and maintain gardens; operate a daycare center or a home-based school; design and build websites; paint, wallpaper and decorate homes and businesses; cater special events; and provide virtual office assistant services over the web. Check Scott Allen’s Entrepreneur’s site for even more ideas.

Keep Your Skills Current: Can you imagine a computer programmer finding a new position after five years outside of the workforce? Neither can I. Not unless she can demonstrate current skills. Fields such as banking, employment law, securities and financial planning change quickly. Attend school, take graduate seminars, participate in online learning and read to stay current in your field. Your local college may have classes you can audit if you can't pay tuition. No, a quick refresher class won’t help you out in most fields when you decide to return to work or change careers. Keeping abreast of your field every year is the best way to stay employable at something you’d like to do.

Use the Time at Home to Change Careers: Maybe it’s time to try something new. A time away from work is perfect for pursuing career options and learning more about yourself and your interests. You may want to . If you decide to change careers, you can invest the time to earn a needed degree. Or, you can spend your volunteer or home-based business time on skills needed for the new career.

Consider Part-time Work: Work part-time in your field, your career change field or just to keep your work record fresh. The money may also come in handy for the family or to fund your future goals.

Consider Job Sharing: Many people have chosen to leave the workforce for periods of time. According to the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of mothers with a child under one-year-old who are working, dropped to 55 percent in 2002 from 59 percent in 1998. This reverses a thirty year trend according to the Census Bureau. Employers may have to consider creative ways to keep valued people working or to fill hard-to-fill positions. Job sharing, either half days, or splitting the week can work for both the employees and the employer if lines of communication remain open. And, the shared work may work best for all concerned when two talented people invest their energy in the same job.

With a consistent investment in yourslf and retaining your job and career relevance, you can overcome an employment gap. Choose to be prepared for the day when the hiring manager asks, "What have you been doing for the past ten years." You can respond, "A lot. I'd like to tell you about that time."

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