career counseling

Career strategies for women opting back in to the workforce

Contributing ColumnistSeptember 2, 2013 

Theresa Mickelwait, assistant director of UK's Stuckert Career Center

DAVID PERRY | STAFF

When Tracy King decided to take a comfortable severance package from her accounting job and stay home with her first child, she never expected it would turn into a 15-year hiatus from her career.

But like many women who pioneered making sacrifices in their corporate careers to raise a family, she found herself changing goals to invest both in herself and her family's future. With looming college expenses, she can now make contributions to her family and reaffirm her own purpose and confidence.

"I want my time to be valued and respected" says King, "I don't want to rely on anyone else; I want to be independent."

The trend of women leaving their careers was coined by Lisa Belkin as "the opt-out revolution" in her 2003 article in the New York Times magazine. After several years, many women have evolving family circumstances that are driving them back in to the workforce.

But they face many challenges, the greatest of which may be the psychological barriers, such as low self-confidence. Women who have stayed at home often feel self-conscious about their age, fear that their intellectual skills have dampened or that they don't have any marketable experience.

Experience has taught King not to care about what other people think, and her advice to women is "don't be afraid to make mistakes or tell people what you are doing." In fact, making sure you have a good support network is also key to a smooth transition into the workplace.

Some other obstacles women face include dealing with gaps in your résumé, a dried-up professional network and planning for the practical realities such as arranging for child care and dealing with the reduced flexibility in your schedule.

But there are a number of strategies that can help prepare women and ease this transition.

The first step in the process is to determine your career goal. This may be an opportunity for many women to pursue a new career path or find their "dream" job. King went through a process of intensive research and self-reflection guided by a Career Relaunch program through the UK Alumni Association. Utilize the resources at your local library to research job market trends and seek the help of a career professional. Conducting informational interviews with people in the career or industry you aspire to will help you evaluate the occupational fit, build connections, and gain insight and advice from inside sources.

Once you have determined your target career, the next step is preparation. According to Caroline Francis, a UK Alumni Career Counselor, "It is important to stay involved in the community and build up your transferable skills."

Transferable skills are skills that can universally transfer into different occupations, such as problem-solving and decision-making, critical thinking or time management. Determining your transferable skills can raise your self-esteem and help build your résumé. Adjusting your résumé to a functional style may help emphasize your transferable skills rather than your gap in employment.

Francis recommends serving on a community board, leading Girl Scouts or volunteering for a non-profit organization to keep your skills fresh and build or maintain your network. Accessing a local job club can help you build your network and learn up-to-date job search strategies. Temping is a good way to ease back into the workforce because you get your feet wet but may be able to maintain some flexibility in your schedule or work only part time.

Another career expert who works specifically with women re-entering the workforce, Pamela Weinberg of Mind Your Own Business Moms ( Myobmoms.com), recommends "smart volunteering, which involves picking the skills that are going to be most marketable" for your profession or career goals. When she stayed home she realized that volunteering for everything was not the best use of her skills. As a writer, she decided to instead offer to write a newsletter, blog or marketing materials to keep her professional skills fresh.

Another good move is to develop some new skills, especially in the area of technology. Many community or adult education centers and libraries offer basic computer courses. You should also pay attention to the current technology trends and familiarize yourself with social media and virtual technology used in corporate settings.

You also need to take stock of the realities of your transition and put a practical plan in place. For example, how will you handle child care or after-school care? Do your kids participate in activities that need transportation? A social support system and resources such as after-school programs and car pools may provide the solution.

Tracy King opted out for 15 years but kept her skills fresh by running her own personal business through Pampered Chef. She could maintain flexibility for her family but also develop transferable skills such as event planning and team building that eventually landed her three job offers with life insurance agencies.

King's advice to women is "always be thinking about the future, what you want, and what you want for your kids."

Theresa Mickelwait holds a master's degree in psychology and a certificate in career coaching from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. She is a senior assistant director at the University of Kentucky James W. Stuckert Career Center. Reach her at Theresa.Mickelwait@uky.edu.

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