Looking for work after a career break? Five tips to get you started

In the past few years, finding any kind of employment has been tough for many people. But for mums returning to work after a career break, the challenge can seem almost insurmountable.

Not only do you feel you need to compete with younger candidates who are hungry with ambition and fresh from their last high-flying position (and don’t need to explain a chunk of time away from the workplace), but often mums can battle with confidence after spending months, or even years, out of their industry.

Mandy Garner, editor of leading jobs and community site Working Mums, shares her tips for resuming your job hunt after a career break.

Why your biggest challenge may be confidence

Going back to work after a career break can be tough in the current climate, but the hardest challenge many women face is building up their confidence to apply for jobs.

Lack of confidence can be a huge barrier facing women who have taken years out of the workforce. It’s easy to fall into the trap of playing down your previous experience, and failing to take account of the experience you’ve gained since leaving paid work.

And in fact, you may easily be overlooking quite a lot of employable attributes. Not only have you built up a raft of skills as a parent which are useful (and even highly valued) in the workplace, including time management, communications skills and maturity, but you may also have been involved in voluntary activities that can add new strings to your bow, such as joining your PTA or running your own own business.

Why you have more to offer than you think

One mum who used her time off to her advantage is Catherine Deptford. Catherine took a 14-year break from investment banking and spent much of that time running her own website with a friend, giving advice to single parents. The organisation became a big favourite with the media and even got their own series on Discovery Channel.

Catherine learnt lots of new skills in the meantime and still had her old ones to fall back on. She says:

“If I were to get passionate about anything now it would be about the number of 40 and 50 plus women who think their experience is worthless when it isn’t. That is just a question of confidence. Your CV is what it is. I had 14 years of solid experience working for big firms, a good degree and postgraduate investment analysis exams.

I was quite surprised at how much interest there was when I first started looking. I had to take a three-week refresher courses and two exams to update my qualifications once I got my post which raised my confidence levels, but the practicalities of doing the job all came back to me once I took up the reins again.

I know what I am doing. Not much changes in 10 years. And you bring lots of things to the workplace that you do not value, but employers do, like maturity and a reduced bandwidth for nonsense. If you also made something of your career break then all power to you.”

What do do about your CV ‘gap’

Another area many women worry about is how to describe the career gap in their CV. Some mums write it very boldly near the top of their CV, but it can be better not to draw undue attention to it (you can read more CV mistakes to avoid here and tips on how to get your CV noticed here).

One solution is to ignore the gap altogether – instead of writing the usual chronological CV, you can instead choose to create a skills-based one, emphasising the experience and qualities that make you stand out and which are particularly appropriate to the job you’re applying for.

Another common mistake is to send out CVs to as many people as possible, without spending time first thinking through exactly what sort of job you want, what relevant experience you have – both paid career experience and unpaid personal experience – and what kind of hours will suit you (read how to write the perfect job application letter here).

Working Mums careers expert Linda Whittern says the first step when putting together your CV should always be to draw up a list of existing skills and capabilities that might be marketable to employers. Ask friends and family members to help you draw up this list (it’s also a good idea to ask them for help with practising interview techniques to reduce nerves!).

Asking for flexible working

One important issue you need to consider before applying for positions is flexible working. Exactly what do you want or need in terms of working hours of arrangements? You may have very fixed ideas about the type of work pattern you want, but you may need to be open to being flexible over flexible working.

The great news is that flexible working can come in many guises, and while you may initially think you can only do a few hours a day, with flexi hours and homeworking you may actually be able to take on more (you can read how to apply for flexible working here).

The key to flexible working is negotiating an arrangement that is right both for you and the organisation you work, or want to work for. Mum Deirdre Critchley returned to banking after a five-year career break. She says she could have come back part time, but she had to be realistic about the kind of role she wanted.

“If you take time out and you want to go back to what you did before you have to find a way to do it over time. I felt the onus was on me to come back up the curve and make it happen, that I had to get from A to B via C and D,” she says. One of her major bits of advice for others thinking of taking similar steps back to work is not to be scared. She says: “Your skills are not as out of date as you think.”

Five tips for to help get your job hunt started

Looking for a flexible job can seem an uphill struggle, as few are openly advertised and many people negotiate flexibility within an existing job. So where should you begin your job hunt, and when should you mention the f-word? Here are five tips to get you started.

1) Use your networks

Tap your networks, including friends, family and former employers and colleagues, and exploit social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn. Many jobs are advertised this way nowadays. (You can read seven simple rules to create a perfect LinkedIn profile here.)

If you are contacting an employer who doesn’t know you, you could ask to do a few days’ trial or a short-term project so that they can see what you’re capable of. Put forward a good business case for why hiring you on flexible hours makes sense for the organisation.

2) Look for flexible working-friendly businesses

Try organisations that specialise in offering flexible work, like Working Mums which works with employers who are keen to promote their family-friendly credentials. Also, do research in the field you want to work in to find out what the best firms to work for are in terms of flexible working.

Working Families runs an awards scheme that identifies good practice, Ten2Two helps local businesses find high calibre professionals who can work flexibly, and you can see a list of other recruitment websites that offer flexible positions here.

Check the websites of the firms you want to work for too – look at their HR policy and check out issues like their attitudes to flexible working. Those that have good policies on flexible working are usually keen to advertise it and to list what they offer.

Look out for companies that offer a range of different types of flexible working, from flexi-time and compressed hours to working from home and job shares. And talk to people who work there if you can, as this will give you a better idea of whether policy translates into practice.

3) Ask in your interview

When you go for an interview, don’t be shy about asking about the company’s flexible work policies. You don’t need to ask outright if you can work part-time or from home. It’s better, at interview stage, to ask indirect questions about the company’s policies, about whether people normally work beyond their contracted hours and about how many of their employees work flexibly.

If you’re offered the job, you would then have to make a good business case for why you should do it on a flexible basis. Be realistic and don’t ask for a degree of flexibility which clearly will not work for the kind of job you are applying for.

4) Make a formal request for flexible working

If you haven’t agreed a flexible work pattern when you join as part of your contract of employment, it’s advisable to go through a formal procedure for agreeing flexibility (this can be done after the first six months) so that your work pattern is written down and becomes part of your contract after you have worked it for more than a year.

You can refer to this if the company subsequently seeks to change your hours – which they would have to do in consultation with you or risk being in breach of contract.

5) Arrange childcare

Remember that you still have to have childcare covered for flexible options such as working from home – the last thing you want is to miss a deadline because your child won’t let you work, or to have an important conference call interrupted by a crying, hungry baby!

So before you accept any job offer, or agree to any flexible working arrangement, make sure that you have arranged adequate childcare.

Start your job hunt with confidence today!

While finding the perfect new job is rarely quick and easy, the good news is that more and more businesses today are recognising the value of employing working mums, and are more open to flexible working arrangements.

And with confidence and a great CV, you can look forward to finding a position worthy of your skills and experience, and enjoy resuming your career again, on your terms.

Mandy Garner is the editor of leading jobs and community site Working Mums.