Rebooting your career after a long layoff

NEW YORK Fri Dec 7, 2012 11:24am EST

A man holds his briefcase while waiting in line during a job fair in Melville, New York July 19, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

A man holds his briefcase while waiting in line during a job fair in Melville, New York July 19, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - As any astronaut will tell you, re-entry is the trickiest and most dangerous part of space flight.

The same might be said about returning jobseekers. Despite the challenges of increased competition and gap-filled resumes, more people who left the workforce, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, are coming back into it, according to the U.S. Labor Department. And they have not always found it easy to reboot careers that may have stalled in the last recession.

In October, there were 3.3 million Americans who had re-entered the workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some of those people had been laid off and discouraged; others may have taken breaks to care for kids or elderly parents, or even retired and then thought better of it. Whatever their reasons, they may find the going tough.

Just ask Dixie Morse. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, mother of two spent 17 years raising her sons and being the "trailing spouse" as her husband worked in financial services in London and Brussels. When her kids reached high school, she was able to land a job as a trainer at financial giant Sun Life - but not before 10 months of what she calls "banging my head against the wall."

"I was surprised at how hard it was to come back," says Morse, 54. "As soon as people saw my resume with a big hole in it, I got weeded out. To recruiters, all that time didn't seem to count as real."

People re-entering the workforce, like Morse, have shown up in some recent jobs reports.

In October, the U.S. unemployment rate ticked up 0.1 percentage points to 7.9 percent, even as employers added 171,000 jobs for the month, because the number of people joining or re-entering the workforce was growing faster than the jobs listings.

In November, the jobless rate dropped to 7.7 percent as there were fewer people entering the labor force than the 146,000 jobs created, the Labor Department reported on Friday.

"In fact, in economic recoveries the unemployment rate usually rises a bit, because people are looking for work again," says Philippa Dunne of The Liscio Report, an economic research firm. "People who were discouraged and had essentially dropped out of the labor force see their friends getting jobs and start trying again themselves."

The number of discouraged workers - those who have given up looking for work because they do not think they can find a job and thus are not counted in the workforce - has fallen, though not in a straight line, to 979,000 in November from roughly 1.2 million in 2010, the Labor Department said.

When people do return to the workforce, they are finding plenty of competition, even from retirees. A survey by brokerage firm Charles Schwab & Co found that 9.5 million retired people were considering re-entering the labor force.

That is what Hank Smith did. The 57-year-old from Wiggins, Colorado, retired in 2010 after 26 years as a postmaster, plotting what he wanted to do with the years ahead. The answer: He wanted to go back to work.

Smith got certified as a nursing assistant, and after a year out of the workforce, is now a transportation coordinator who helps older people get to their doctor's appointments. "I didn't want to just sit around for the rest of my life," he says.

By choosing a profession that is in increasing demand, Smith was able to manage his re-entry successfully. Here are some other key strategies:

- Rebuild your network. "The biggest challenge is that you become professionally disconnected and lose track of your network," says Carol Fishman Cohen, founder of career re-entry firm iRelaunch. Re-establish casual contact through social media like Facebook or LinkedIn, and ask your former colleagues for informational meetings rather than pleading for a gig.

- Refresh your skills with targeted coursework. Especially in fields like information technology or engineering, it is easy for your skills to become outdated within a few years. Even if you are not going back to school for a full-fledged degree, certifications in key areas - like cutting-edge programming languages, say - will let hiring managers know you can hit the ground running.

- Volunteer at relevant organizations. You are helping the world, sure. But you are also assembling a portfolio of work that will help bridge lengthy time gaps on your resume. "If you're looking to manage construction projects, do a weekend build for Habitat for Humanity," suggests Cohen. "If you're a journalist, run a charity's online newsletter."

- Get the resume right. A gaping hole is enough to give any hiring manager pause, so fill in that gap for him or her since you presumably were not just sitting on the couch the whole time. As any member of the Sandwich Generation will tell you, raising a child or caring for an infirm parent is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs in America, and those achievements should be celebrated instead of minimized.

- Be open to short-term roles. Despite the economic recovery, companies are still reluctant to take on full-timers. Assuage their concerns by suggesting less binding arrangements, like special projects or contract work. "That's a very effective strategy for those who feel they retired too early and want to get back in," says Cohen. "Suggest it to employers who are hesitant because you've been out of the game, and it gives you an opportunity to show your value and produce a work sample."

As for Dixie Morse, she feels fortunate that she was able to re-enter the job market during such difficult economic times.

"I figured I'd better re-start my career sooner rather than later," Morse says, "because with each year, it gets even harder."

(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

(Editing by Linda Stern and Lisa Von Ahn)

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