Career breaks shouldn’t trip you up. Here’s how to get back in the game

Many people enter their careers with an expectation that they will get a job after graduation and continue on until they neatly wrap up their professional lives when they retire. The reality is very different. A person’s career rarely progresses along a straight line to retirement. The path is filled with ups, downs and periodic stops.

One piece of good news is that a growing number of people are moving away from their idealized expectations of career trajectories. An even better piece of news is that an increasing number of employers are realizing that people’s careers include these twists and turns. Some are underlying that recognition by creating return-to-work programs.

The specifics of these “returnships” vary, but they generally offer a structured program to people who want to rejoin the workforce. The companies offering the programs intend to hire people who successfully complete the process.

Carol Fishman Cohen, who is the CEO of iRelaunch, is a pioneer in the return-to-work world and has used her own experience to help others get back into the workforce. She recently wrote about the history and basics of return-to-work programs for HBR.

“I feel directly connected to all the people who are on career breaks now and who are getting ready to return because I have been through every phase of the transition firsthand,” she told me.

Untapped talent

One of the reasons companies are looking to people who took breaks from their careers is that they bring a lot to the table, said Fishman Cohen.

“If you think about the attributes of this pool, they’re educated, have great work experience, have a mature perspective and have worked already,” she said. “They have been on multigenerational teams and worked with different personalities and deadlines.”

Also, because they’ve already taken a break from their careers, these people tend to be in relatively stable stages of life and are beyond the entry or exploratory stages of their careers.

Companies — especially larger employers — are realizing these benefits and offering formal return-to-work programs. Fishman Cohen’s company keeps a directory of many companies offering these programs. You can find that directory by clicking here.

You’ll find many big names in iRelaunch’s directory, including Accenture, Amazon, Barclays, Ford, IBM, NBC Universal, Walmart and Utah (the state) — to name a few.

Almost 40% of Fortune 50 companies and less than 10% of Fortune 500 have return-to-work programs, said Fishman Cohen. Obviously, she added, there are many other employers offering these programs that fall outside those two categories.

Who’s eligible?

Each company sets its own eligibility criteria for its return-to-work program. Typically, companies had set basic requirements at a person being out of the workforce for two or more years, said Fishman Cohen. However, an increasing number of companies are adding some flexibility to their criteria.

For example, some companies have lowered the eligibility requirement to a one-year career break following the pandemic. Some are also allowing underemployed people to apply to their return to work programs. An underemployed person could be someone with skills and experience who wants a full-time job but has only been able to land contract or part-time roles, for example.

“The eligibility factors are really guidelines,” said Fishman Cohen. “What we tell people to do is go ahead and apply for the program. Let the company decide whether or not you are eligible.”

One tip she has for people applying to return-to-work programs is to highlight your career break on your resume

“Put the career break at the very top of your experience — from whatever year you started it until the present,” she added. “And then you can include some bullet points. That might include strategic volunteering you had or recent and relevant coursework. Even if you did occasional consulting, you could put that as a bullet point.”

What if programs aren’t available?

You may have trouble finding return-to-work programs at some of your target companies or at small businesses in your area. Even if that’s the case, Fishman Cohen said there are ways for people with career breaks to get their feet in the doors.

For example, if you feel an employer is interested in your skills but worried about the gap on your resume, she said you can suggest a mini returnship for yourself. “Suggest a contract consulting role or even a special project for a limited period of time,” she added. “They can evaluate you based on actual work samples instead of a series of interviews.”

As for interviews themselves, people returning from a career break may face unique questions from employers. When that happens, Fishman Cohen said you want to quickly acknowledge the career break without apologizing for it and then pivot to why you’re the best person for the role.

She also provides tips for people looking to get back into the workforce in her popular TedX talk. You can watch it by clicking here. Her company is also hosting its annual conference in October on the topic.

By Andrew Seaman
Andrew Seaman Senior Editor for Job Search & Careers at LinkedIn News