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Returning to the Workforce
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett
When Deb Gay began looking for a job in Colorado Springs last year, fear was a constant companion.

On her own for 4 years, she worried about returning to a corporate environment. She worried about her age. She worried if she could find a job in today's tough economy. And she worried about her salary.

"Here I am, 53," says Gay, an organizational psychologist and coach who has a doctorate degree. "Am I going to have to call home and ask to live with my mother?"

Gay's fears are common among almost anyone who re-enters the workforce after an extended absence. Whether they've left corporate America to raise children, heal from an illness, retire, or -- like Gay -- start their own business, returning can be a scary proposition.

"Most people would have performance anxiety," says Wendy Bliss, a human resource consultant, attorney and principal of Bliss and Associates in Colorado Springs. "This kind of re-entry in the workforce is a pretty significant lifestyle change in every way."

Significant, yes. But it doesn't have to stir such fear. If you're looking to go back to work after a few years away -- or think you may want to return some day -- there are strategies you can follow now to make the transition easier.

First, don't opt out altogether, says Patricia Berg, general manager of the Career Management Service division of Personnel Decisions International in Edina, MN. Leaving the working world completely could make it harder to come back down the road.

Berg knows first-hand. She left the workforce several years ago when her children were 18-months and 5-years-old. She spent the next few years concentrating on Brownies, field trips and not much else. When she finally decided to return to work, she realized she knew nothing about what was happening in her industry. Worse, she'd lost touch with her professional contacts.

Today, Berg suggests those leaving the workforce spend at least 20 percent of their time attending to career matters. Stay connected to your professional network, she advises. Keep your membership in any professional associations and go to their meetings. Continue getting professional publications. "If you're thinking of going back to work at all," Berg says, "it's not a total disconnect."

It's also important to stay up-to-date on any innovations in your field. That may mean learning new computer programs or brushing up on other skills to ensure proficiency.

Finally, look for ways to continue doing something related to your chosen field. Volunteer for a nonprofit. Serve on a committee that taps into your professional skills. Not only will the work keep you connected to your profession -- it gives you something to put on your resume once you decide to reenter the working world.

This last point is really important. Recruiters typically look for two things from people who've been out of the workforce for a few years, says Bob Carr, vice president of human resource and strategic planning for the Alexandria, VA-based Society for Human Resource Management:

  • Some sort of social engagement outside the home

  • A desire to stay busy.

By listing continuing education courses, professional seminars and volunteer work on your resume, you help meet those needs.

Once you do decide to go back to work, the length of your job search will depend on your industry and the economy. To improve your odds for a short search, tell everyone you can that you're looking.

"You never know who's going to have heard about an opening or who might be thinking about you," Bliss says.

Also, take time at this initial stage to decide what you want from a job. The career you had before may not be the career you want to return to. Consider hiring a coach to help answer some key questions, Berg says, like "where are you with your values? Where are you with your work/life integration? And what is it you're going to be able to take on?"

Decide, too, how you'll answer the No. 1 question on interviewers' minds: What have you been doing all these years?

"You shouldn't have to apologize," Bliss says. But be prepared to describe why you left the workforce, what you did in the interim and why you're prepared to come back now. "It's a lot about candor and confidence in how you answer it. And preparation, too."

Of course, finding a job is just part of the return-to-work equation. Once you start a new position, find someone who can help you quickly understand the company's culture and politics.

"You need a mentor or an ally," Carr says. "Someone who can help you like you're going to a foreign country."

And don't rush in like you're the expert, says Gay, who found a job in employee coaching last August. You may be working at a lower level than when you left the workforce. (She is.) You may be working for someone younger than you. (Her boss is 39.) The worse thing you can do is start barking orders and acting like you're in charge.

"I'm an individual contributor. And I'm glad I'm not the manager. I'm glad I'm not in charge," she says. "My formula was to stay humble, extremely professional, humorous, and to listen."

Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today,, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.