Career Advice

Returning to the Workforce? Master These Strategies

12 tips to perfect your resume and ace your interview

In the TV show Younger, Sutton Foster’s character is a woman who wants to return to the workforce after staying at home to raise her daughter. After being rejected for her 15-year resume gap, she pretends to be 26 to land a job. The show is a comedy, but its premise is a real dilemma faced by many women: how to return to the workforce after taking time off. But you don’t have to re-invent yourself as a 26-year old to succeed — be authentic and strategic by following these strategies geared toward women returning to the workforce.

1. Be confident and don’t apologize

The first step is to be honest with yourself about what you are looking for and what you can bring to a job. “You shouldn’t apologize for taking time off,” says Debra Wheatman, president of Careers Done Write. “Women, in particular, marginalize themselves by doing that.” 

Jennifer Romolini, author of the career guide Weird in a World That’s Not and speaker at The Riveter Summit, says, “You can’t game the system with some perfect explanation of why you took time off. Strategizing the perfect excuse for your time off, or an apology for living life on your terms, which you do not have to apologize for — not to an employer and certainly not to yourself — is going to disempower you from the jump.”

2. Reframe the conversation 

“Reframe the conversation to your selling points,” says Romolini. “What does the potential employer need from you? What do you uniquely bring to this role? What are your skills and strengths?”

“I tell people just because you took time off, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been doing anything,” says Wheatman. “We are all experts in something,” says Chandra Turner, founder and CEO of Ed2010 and Talent Fairy agency. 

3. Ramp up gradually with consulting and volunteering

“It’s hard to go from cold turkey to full-time job,” says Turner. “It’s more marketable to do more of a slow build.” If you have the flexibility to ramp up, take the time to do so. “The ideal is that you are not completely off the market,” says Turner.

“The nice thing is that every industry is part of the gig economy in some way,” says Turner. Segue back into the paid working world gradually with returnships (internships at large companies designed as “on-ramps” for people who have taken time off), consulting and volunteering.

Romolini says “Be creative and flexible and don’t limit yourself with any set of conventional rules that will hold you back. Try not to define your value in terms of salary. Maybe you have a couple of part-time jobs for a minute. Or maybe pro bono work with a startup that desperately needs some of your legacy skills but doesn’t have the money to pay you correctly for it.”

4. Treat volunteer work the same as paid work

Anyone who has ever managed a PTA bake sale knows the logistics are as unwieldy as at any paid job. Include your volunteer experience on your resume, whether it was helping at the PTA, soccer team or your place of worship. 

Turner says women often undervalue their contribution as volunteers. “You should be proud to be a Girl Scout leader!” she said. “Recognize what it takes to do the work.” In fact, says Wheatman, “managing volunteers is more difficult than a regular job because volunteers are not being paid, but you still need to empower them.” She points out that most volunteer-run organizations don’t have enough people, time and money, yet these organizations still need to meet their goals — a very translatable skill to the office!

5. Focus on metrics

“Highlight accomplishments, rather than responsibilities” on your resume, especially for volunteer work, says Kendall Brown, founder of Ascension Careers. Turner echoes this advice, saying, “Focus on metrics.”

What does this look like? Instead of writing, “Organized bake sale for the PTA,” write:

  • Expanded annual bake sale from one day to three days.
  • Increased profits by 150% over two years.
  • Brought in new vendor, doubling profit margins.

6. Be authentic, but don’t exaggerate

Don’t get carried away and describe yourself as CEO of your home. “It’s a fine line between overinflating what you’ve done and underselling yourself,” says Turner.

Briefly explain the employment gap if necessary with a simple statement in your professional summary — that you took time off, but that you are ready and committed to entering the workforce full-time. “Address the elephant in the room,” says Brown.

7. Group small projects together as one job

Instead of listing freelance experience as separate job entries, group them together. An accountant who volunteered for the PTA and took on freelance work for local businesses might describe her time as such:

2009 to 2019              HERMIONE GRANGER ACCOUNTING

Accounting consultant for small businesses. Clients include Hogwarts PTA, Girl Scout Council and Ollivander’s Wand Company.

  • Set up accounting systems for startup companies, using QuickBooks.
  • Tracked revenue, profit and expenses for annual budgets ranging from $150,000 to $500,000.
  • Exceeded fundraising goals, with significant yearly growth. 

“Pull it together and present your experience as your chosen path for a career,” says Turner, rather than as a motley assortment of jobs. 

8. Women of color DO have to work harder

Women of color who are re-entering the workforce may feel like they have three strikes against them — being a woman, being a person of color, and being a person with a resume gap. Brown says, “While everyone’s resume needs to be filled with accomplishments, career highlights and of course, be error-free, women of color have to work harder to ensure that someone’s in-person perception of us matches that initial perception derived from the resume. This is a burden that others don’t have to carry.” 

Brown says, “Swing for the fences throughout the entire job search process — resume, LinkedIn profile, cover letter, networking and interviewing — so that you can simply stay in the game.”

9. Research companies that match your values

You are more likely to be hired and feel comfortable at a company that values diversity, with diversity including not just representation of women and people of color in positions of leadership, but also diversity of experience.

Brown says, “Companies have become more generous when it comes to appreciating how someone got to where they are today. There is a lot more grace for whatever people’s stories are.” 

 “A lot of companies have a more flexible outlook,” says Wheatman. “The working world is evolving and growing.”

10. Reach out to the hiring manager directly

The best way to get hired is to get a personal introduction to the hiring manager. “If you can get someone in the company to walk your resume over to the manager and say, ‘I know on paper she’s not the candidate you were expecting, but she has a lot to offer,’ I guarantee that the hiring manager will take a close look at the resume,” says Brown.

In addition to reaching out to your in-person network to find a conduit to the hiring manager, Turner suggests signing up for two plug-ins, Rocket Reach and Skrapp

Both of these programs, which work as extensions for your Chrome browser and LinkedIn, help to find the correct email for the hiring manager. Email your cover letter and resume directly to the hiring manager so that she can see it without going through the automated applicant tracking system.

11. How do I get past the bots? 

If you’re applying online, your resume is first going to be sorted by software or an applicant tracking system, known as ATS for short. Very few resumes make it past the bots, which is why employment experts suggest networking your resume directly to the hiring manager. But nevertheless, there are times when you will also need to apply online. (These tips apply to LinkedIn profiles as well).

Here’s the low-down on how to make it past the robot overlords:

Format: Don’t use any graphics or fancy formatting. Write your resume in Word document or a plain-text file. Any unusual graphics or unusual formatting will not make it past ATS.

Bullet points: Do not use unusual graphics for bullet points. Use a standard open or closed circle.

Style: Do not use a functional resume. Either stick with the standard reverse chronological format or use a hybrid resume, with a professional summary up top, outlining key skills and qualifications and listing experience below.

Customize: Make a different resume for each application. Or at the very least, read a variety of job descriptions for the jobs you want and write a list of frequently used keywords in the job ads and use them in your resume.

Keywords: Read the job description and pick out all the keywords they use in the ad and make sure you use the same language as the ad. If the ad says they want someone familiar with how to “optimize SEO,” then use the phrase “optimize SEO” multiple times in both your professional summary and in your job experience. 

Many online job portals, including LinkedIn, will show the percentage of your resume skills that match the job description. Try to make it close to 100%.

Length of experience: Some ATS systems will assign a six-month time span for any skills that are listed separately from a job, such as within a professional summary. This is why it is important to organize smaller projects — freelance, short-term, or consulting gigs — all under one title. In the fictional accountant example above, the ATS system would assume ten years of experience with QuickBooks, instead of a few months, if the skill had been listed separately.

12. A resume is just the beginning

On average, even a human will only take seconds to scan your resume. So to recap, be clear, honest, and focus on your strengths and your commitment to returning full-time on your resume. 

How will you know your resume is successful? If you’re getting called in for interviews. “If you are getting interviews with your resume, it means it’s doing its job,” says Brown. Once you’re in an interview, you’re in a much stronger position. “Most people are terrible interviewers,” laughs Turner. “The details fall away and people are looking for a connection with the applicant.”

And for many hiring managers, hiring parents is an asset, not a liability. “I love hiring moms. Moms know how to multitask, moms are great time managers, moms generally give less of a shit about unimportant things because their time is precious and they want to spend it wisely, and they mostly keep things in better perspective than people who are not moms,” says Romolini.

You can do it

Finally, for some real-life inspiration, look at Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Mother of five, Pelosi was a stay-at-home mom until her youngest was a high school senior. She volunteered in politics, in addition to driving carpool, before running for office at age 47.

“Know your own power,” Pelosi has said. “Don’t let anybody diminish for one moment the time you spend at home. Because probably nothing is more energizing, purposeful, better to orient you to know how to use time, delegate authority.” 

Claire Lui, chair of the annual Thanksgiving PTA pie sale, is a design, business and culture writer.

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