Whether you took a break from your career to raise a family, decided to come out of retirement or simply haven't found a job after being laid off, an employment gap can be a difficult hurdle to overcome when you're trying to get back into the workforce. It's like trying to go back to school years after you left: The standards and technologies have likely changed since you were last there, and you're no longer used to the pace and structure of classroom (or in this case, office) life.
Because of these factors, you might feel like you're not capable of handling the modern work environment. You may even fear that people will realize how 'out of practice' you are, which might invalidate your accomplishments thus far in the eyes of others. Rebecca Dallek, a career and leadership coach at Dallek Coaching and a contributor to Career 2.0, calls this "imposter syndrome," and it has the potential to hurt someone's chances of succeeding when he or she returns to work.
"People who have taken a break from the workforce tend to struggle with a feeling of incompetence," Dallek told Business News Daily. "When there is no one sitting over your shoulder telling you what a great job you've done, it is harder to give yourself that message. It is critical that someone returning to work not sabotage themselves as a result of these [negative] feelings. Just because you feel incompetent does not make it true."
Corporate employees are not the only ones who suffer from feeling out of step, either: Even entrepreneurs can feel the pressures if they've been away from the business world for a while. Vince Poist, who owned his own restaurant for 20 years before retiring in 2003, faced these types of challenges when he opened up a Signarama franchise in Baltimore, Maryland several years later.
"The world moves at a faster pace with the advent of Internet communication and I have had to work on my multitasking skills [and] social networking skills," Poist said.
Christine Schuldt, founder of Go4College.com and an Hourly Nerd business consultant, had a similar experience when she left her full-time job to give birth to her son. [7 Smart Ways to Handle Employment Gaps on Your Resume]
"When I founded Go4College in 2000, e-commerce was still in its infancy," Schuldt said. "Social media wasn't even on the map and online advertising was relatively primitive. Today, what used to feel more like an art has become closer to a science, and access to the analytics and programming technology is [now] ubiquitous and a lot more user friendly. You can blink ... and within a year or two, a lot can change in terms of the technology that you use at work."
No matter what your situation, you'll need a plan for success when you're gearing up to get back to work. Here are three tips to help you make the transition easier.
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. As you go into the job search process, Dallek advised creating a strong narrative for yourself to answer the inevitable questions about the gap in your resume.
"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.'"
Dallek recommended giving an answer like, "This career gap has given me an opportunity to really hone in on my career brand and the skill sets I bring to the table. If I have the opportunity to work at your organization, I would contribute in X, Y and Z ways."
Your narrative should also include why you chose to come back to the workforce at this point in time, added Schuldt.
"For example, maybe your kids are now in school full time," she said. "I would like to think that employers are more understanding these days of gaps in employment when there is good reason."
Keep your skills sharp. If you've purposely chosen to take a break from your career — especially to raise children — it can be very easy to focus on that and forget about honing the skills that helped you in your career before. Schuldt 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. "For example, a lot of my friends hold leadership positions in the Wellesley Mother's Forum. Starting an online business or blog can [also] help keep you current and relevant. And, for me, Hourly Nerd has been ideal for my situation. Not only can I keep my skills current, I can also gain new experience as technology evolves."
Network as much as you can. It's one of the most commonly dispensed pieces of job search advice: Network, network, network. You may have the right background and experience, but without connections to the right people, you might have a more difficult time securing a job than someone who is proactive about reaching out to industry peers.
"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. Update your LinkedIn as well and let people know you're looking to get back in the game."
"If you plan to stay behind your computer and apply to jobs all day, you probably won't have much success," Dallek added. "The key to a successful return to work is letting people know you are looking, providing them with a clear job target and giving them an opportunity to support you along the way."
Need more job search tips to help you get back to work? Check out Business News Daily's guide.