Career Transition

Mid-Career Professionals: 5 Steps For Re-Entering the Workforce

midlife professional

With unemployment hovering at post-recession low of 5.1%, now could be the best opportunity in years to return to the workforce if you’ve been taking a break.

Whether you have kept your professional skills sharp—or you’ve fallen behind professionally but are willing to take a job that’ll let you catch up—there are lots of new opportunities out there.

The trick of course, is navigating the roadblocks that can derail you if you took time off, such as rusty skills or employers’ hesitance to hire people with gaps in their resumes. Here are some tips on how to blast right through them.

  • Take a Self-Assessment and Make Sure You Are in the Right Mindset.

Given the challenges of reentering the workforce, you need to be 100% committed to getting a job or you’ll be easily derailed. If you have some choice in whether or not you will work and find you are ambivalent, wait until you’re ready to commit to start looking.

How do you know if you’re ready? Pay attention to your own behavior. When you are ready, you’ll find yourself in motion, spending time almost every day on activities that will lead to a job, such as refreshing your skills, reading job postings and networking. One hint you are not ready is you find yourself saying things to friends like, “I want to look for work, but….” or “I am going to look for a job as soon as…”

There’s no one right time table for a career, so pay attention to how you really feel. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of your time and the goodwill of people in your network you ask to help you–which will make it hard to go back to them when you really are committed.

  • Build a Support System.

Talk regularly about your plan to reenter the workforce with the key players in your life, such as a spouse, partner, children or siblings who share responsibility for aging parents. They will probably have some concerns about how certain work will be accomplished if you are not doing it anymore. Take the lead in looking for solutions that work for everyone—whether that means asking others to pitch in or hiring paid help.

If you have been an at-home parent, schedule time for catchup calls with other working parents you know. Ask them if they can point you to good career resources in your area, such a career coach. They can also be a good source of practical information, like the best websites to find babysitters and cleaning help in your area or what type of wardrobe you need these days to fit into the culture of the companies where you want to apply. The more solutions you have at your fingertips, the less likely obstacles will derail you.

  • Define a Clear Goal.

Before you update your resume or start networking, invest in a session or two with a good career coach (if you can afford it) or invite a trusted mentor to lunch. Use the time to discuss what you want to do now and assess what you are realistically qualified to do. If you want to a reenter a past field, work with your coach or mentor to determine there are new skills you need to learn—and figure out how to do that–or credentials you need to get so you can work. If you want to make a career change but aren’t sure what field is best for you, many career coaches can assessments to help you find the right option.

Also consider your lifestyle goals. Some returning job seekers are eager to “lean in” to a traditionally structured corporate job as soon as they return, while others are looking for more flexibility. With the workplace far more mobile than it was even five years ago, it may be possible to find a telecommuting arrangement, if that is what you want. And if you are seeking even more flexibility, don’t rule out entrepreneurship. The internet has made it easier to start a home-based business.

  • Focus on One Task Per Week.

Once you zero in on your goal, set a desired deadline to get your job. You may not hit it exactly, but having a deadline will help you build momentum. Also decide on the most important task you will need to accomplish each week to hit your deadline—and put that task on your calendar. For instance, in week one, you might decide to devote three hours a day to creating a great resume or meeting with a resume writer. For week two, you might spend each morning familiarizing yourself with LinkedIn, putting up a profile and adding to your contacts. And so forth. If you haven’t worked in a long while, it will realistically take a month or two to set things up so you can apply for work effectively, but you’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish if you accomplish one key task a week.

  • Position Yourself as a Problem Solver.

All companies hire for one reason: They have work to get done and need someone capable to do it. By doing as much research as possible on exactly what type of help individual employers need—through reading about them and talking with any contacts who work there—you’ll be in a better position to show you are the right person to offer that help in your job applications and interviews. (If you don’t have any recent contacts, consider joining a trade organization in your future field so you can make some).

Make sure you include plenty of examples of experiences that show you can do the exact type of work you want to get in your LinkedIn profile, your resume, your cover letter and your interview answers. Employers generally prefer recent experience in full-time jobs, but not always. Your examples can come from recent freelance, temporary, volunteer and unpaid work you’ve done. (I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2007 and often get job offers.)

Don’t have any relevant experience? Then look for volunteer opportunities or freelance and temporary work that will give you a chance to get experience that makes you more relevant to employers. It doesn’t take many instances of success to prove you can do something well. The more evidence you can demonstrate that you can do the work you want to do, the more willing employers will be to bet on you.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.