Returning to work: getting back on track

Businessman walking through field
© creacart | iStock

You may have just returned from a year of backpacking and ‘finding yourself’, or recently recovered from illness or injury. You could be finishing up a stint of maternity or paternity leave, or had some time out to tour with your band.

Whatever the case, it’s time to get back into the workforce after a major break – and just the thought of it has you daunted.

How do you find a job when you’ve been out of the game for a while? Are you practically ready and are your skills still relevant or current? Do you have what organisations are after now? And how fresh is that old resume looking? How will you explain the break to potential employers? So many questions … 

Do you still have the goods?

You may well still have what it takes, but bear in mind that the longer you go without working, the harder it is to get back into the workforce.

First, your skills may be outdated. With our increasing reliance on technology and the rapid pace of technological change, this is more likely than ever before. Be it engineering, design, nursing, accounting, whatever – if you’re not down with the technology, you quickly get left behind.

Being outside the workplace also means you’re not in touch with workplace culture and operations. You’re not participating in the systems, you’re not communicating with colleagues, you’re not coming up with new ideas every day and keeping up with industry developments. That is, you’re neither walking the walk nor talking the talk of your industry in meaningful ways on a daily basis. You don’t have a feel for the workplace in a way that makes you confident and capable.

This confidence is really the key – and lack of it is one of the hardest things to overcome for those who have been out of the workforce. You may have lost confidence in your abilities and be convinced that no one would hire you. If that’s the case, you need to do something that will reinstate your own belief that you can bring something valuable to the table. That’s where additional training can help … 

The value and importance of re-skilling

One of the most important things you can do to restore your confidence is to do some training to update those tired old skills. With many job markets getting increasingly competitive, you need to ensure you’re still sharp and have a competitive edge, and show employers that you’ve got the drive to continue your professional development.

You could be an IT pro who needs additional technical credentials to stay competitive. You might be returning to the publishing world to discover that you need new skills in graphic design or digital media. Maybe you want to pick up your administrative career where you left off and need formal training, or you want to start a new career in community services or project management.

Whatever the case, one thing’s for sure: it’s far easier than ever before to stay on top of the skills you need with additional training, and online study makes it easy and flexible, no matter what your situation. Today, there are thousands of online courses available, from fully fledged bachelor degrees to certificate courses and short courses that you can complete either before you return to work, or begin when you’re back in employment.

Sydney-based designer and art gallery curator Lara Kern knows what it’s like. After travelling through South and North America, Europe and South-East Asia for 12 months, with no money upon return, she knew it was crunch time.

‘I felt a bit behind to say the least’, she says. ‘Because I hadn’t been working, I felt out of the loop – it was hard to convince employers that despite having been away for so long, I was still completely capable of doing good work.’

Lara says she applied for loads of jobs she was certain she would have been accepted for, had she been coming straight from another job. To give herself a bit of a leg up, she decided to enrol in an online Certificate III in Project Management.

‘I thought, “Why not? I’m job hunting anyway.” Doing that helped give me some purpose, and filled a hole in my career’, she says. ‘I saw it as a good way to strengthen and complement my design skills.’

‘And’, she adds, ‘it was a signal to employers that I was proactive and I was someone who knew how to get things done.’

Revamp your old resume

If it’s been a while since you were last working, your resume is going to need some work.

First, you’ll need to update your work history, which also means accounting for your time out. Don’t try to avoid addressing it, hoping no one will notice that big gaping hole in your employment history – because you can be sure that potential employers will.

You can even use your recent experiences to your advantage. For example, casual work done while travelling – say, as a bartender or English language teacher – may contribute to convincing an employer of your worth, pointing to your flexibility, your adaptability and resourcefulness. If you took time out to have a family or care for a sick parent, you could use that to demonstrate your organisational ability and caring attitude towards others. Emphasise your skills and strengths, and use whatever experiences you can to back them up.

You may also need to reframe your resume to employ new industry language or buzzwords, relate to new industry concepts or, if you’re changing careers, to highlight your transferable skills in the context of your target job.

Don’t forget that resume structure and formatting has rolled with the times too. Times New Roman may have looked good in 1998, but these days it’s more likely to make you, and your resume, look dated.

Whatever you do, your resume needs to be able to say, ‘Despite my time out, I’m still a fast-learning, capable and valuable employee’. You need to make that resume stand out for all the right reasons. Remember, a bad resume provides a really easy excuse for employers to say no – don’t give them that excuse!

Other ways to hit the ground running

  • Get organised and stay positive. Set routines and goals, and don’t get distracted.
  • Research what’s happening in your industry, and brush up on stuff you used to know but may have forgotten.
  • When the interview comes, try not to come across as insecure or cagey about your break from work. Speak openly and confidently about your experiences and how worthwhile they were, and show how enthusiastic (but not desperate) you are about getting back into work. 
  • Consider updating your wardrobe and ‘look’.



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