Leaving a stable job for any reason is tough. What can be even tougher is returning to work after substantial time off.
Whether your intention is to be gone for years or just a few months, here's what you can do during your hiatus to make you a desirable candidate when you do decide to go back to work.
Develop your narrative
As many job seekers know, employers tend to raise an eyebrow when they see you haven't been employed for a while, regardless of the reason. During the job search process, Rebecca Dallek, career and leadership coach at Dallek Coaching LLC, advises creating a strong narrative to explain resume gaps.
"While the hurdle may be higher to get a job after a gap, you can minimize that hurdle by really telling a compelling story about your career and value-add as an employee," Dallek said. "When an employer asks you directly about your gap, it is important to answer the question head-on but not make it bigger than it is. Turn the gap into an asset rather than a scarlet letter."
Many don't plan for the time off they end up taking, and therefore think that re-entering the workplace, especially their old job, is impossible. [If you have some gaps in your employment history, a functional resume format might be best for you.]
"I had previously worked for GM and never imagined that 20 years later the company would warmly welcome me back," said Wendy Kwiecinski, overhead systems design engineer for General Motors. "When I made the difficult decision to step away from GM to raise and homeschool our three children full time, I believed I had given up my engineering career."
When explaining her gap, Kwiecinski focused on the interpersonal, planning and execution skills she had developed while homeschooling her children, as well as highlighting the events and activities she coordinated through her community.
"As it turned out, those skills, the willingness to learn and my engineering degrees made me a desirable employee," she said.
Keep your skills sharp
If you've chosen to take a break from your career, it can be easy to forget about honing your skills for future job positions. Christine Schuldt, founding consultant at Pinstripe Partners LLC, emphasized the importance of making time to maintain those skills during your gap, even if it's through nontraditional channels.
"There are fantastic opportunities with nonprofit organizations and social groups to work on marketing, fundraising, event planning, operations, etc. that can be done on a part-time basis and are flexible," Schuldt said.
To keep her skills sharp, Jennifer Young, PSBU application engineer at Cummins Inc., volunteered in various organizations as coordinator and assistant coordinator.
"I also organized and ran my daughter's Girl Scout troop's cookie program as a chair for a few years," she said. "I stayed up to date on Microsoft Office programs with the volunteer work. This also enabled me to use leadership and organizational skills to run groups and their programs."
Keep your resume up to date
Updating your resume and passing it along to friends and companies you're interested in can help motivate you while re-entering the workforce.
"I first updated my resume, adding the time frames and activities that documented my 20-year gap," said Kwiecinski. “I then practiced interviewing with my husband. This activity helped me gain confidence and anticipate questions I may be asked in an actual interview. As I went through this process, I marked up my resume with notes about which activities highlighted various skills an employer might be interested in."
Network as much as you can
It's some of the most commonly dispensed job search advice. You may have the right background and experience, but without connections, you might have a more difficult time securing a job than someone who is proactive about reaching out to industry peers. This becomes even more difficult as you separate yourself from the working world you once interacted with on a regular basis.
"Connect with as many people as you can in the industry you want to go back into," Schuldt said. "It really is a small world, and you can learn a lot and get a lot of leads if you are open to talking to people. Even people not directly in the industry you are interested in may be able to introduce you to someone.”
Additionally, update your LinkedIn and let people know you're job searching, Schuldt said.
Keeping up with the people that you once worked with proved invaluable for Kwiecinski. It allowed her to find a program at GM Take 2, which is aimed at people who are ready to resume their careers.
"I was fortunate enough to have an existing network, but not everyone has that established," she said. "I encourage people to get involved in STEM organizations and other programs to start networking. Get out there, meet people, take some classes, and update your skills."
Additional reporting by Nicole Fallon. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.