Comeback after kids: how to survive a career break

by Rebecca Dalton

Heat, hay fever, and wan-faced teenagers: it must be exam time. If you have a child going through this particular torture, you’ll appreciate the fine line between stressing the vital importance of it all, and not completely stressing everyone out about the vital importance of it all.

We can probably all remember writing as if our lives depended on it in that sweaty school hall. And yet, a few years – perhaps two jobs – down the line, those qualifications start to lose their significance, start to gain a little dust down at the bottom of our c.v.

But what if everything on your c.v. looks a little dusty, feels like ancient history? It’s problem for anyone who’s taken an extended career break, and that, disproportionately, means women.

Julie Coates, Head of Human Resources at Lockton Companies LPP, says life experience shouldn’t be underestimated. Her key tips for returners putting together a c.v. are: try to show you’ve kept up to date with the industry – read the trade publications for instance; highlight any new qualifications and any voluntary roles; and absolutely don’t be apologetic about taking a career break. She adds: “You gain skills and knowledge from every experience you have in life but it’s about working out how they are relevant to the working environment.”

One mother of two, who returned to her career in procurement after nearly a decade away, applied for nearly 30 jobs before securing an interview. Two years on, she’s been promoted twice in her new job. She says: “My advice would be to keep a spreadsheet of all jobs you apply for: company name, role etc. and a folder for the job specs. So that in a month’s time when they offer you an interview you have some chance of remembering what you applied for!”

She admits it’s easy to lose confidence: “A number of things go through your head: am I too old, how junior will I have to go to get a foothold, how much have things moved on. And how do I make those years ‘disappear’ or appear useful.

“You start to feel absolutely useless: the longer you are out of work, the further away any likelihood of returning appears.”

A senior marketing executive, who sees dozens of c.v.’s, says: “A career break doesn’t put me off. If they’ve done it once, they can do it again. However, I do normally go straight to look at the references. If they’ve managed to keep in touch with at least a couple of people in the industry – and hopefully senior people, that’s a huge advantage.”

He added: “Selfishly, if someone’s children are older, they’re less likely to want time off for every cough and sniffle.”

Voice At The Table’s CEO Rina Goldenberg Lynch says: “That might not be the most right-on way of putting it, but businesses certainly stand to gain much more than they realise from returners. Our role at Voice At The Table is to help companies adapt their practices to get the most out of this hidden workforce.”

The new regulations on gender pay gap reporting are forcing this issue up the agenda. However, the problem is not that organisations have been deliberately trying to make things difficult. It’s more that a lack of imagination, combined with long held perceptions about people who’ve been “out of it” for too long, are creating obstacles. Times are changing – but it’s taking time.