Landing that first job after a hiatus can be daunting, and many women experience a crisis of confidence. Employer resistance doesn’t help. “Many companies are suspicious if you’ve been out of the workforce for one or two years. If you’re out three to five years, it’s almost as though you’ve lost all your work skills,” says Nick Burkholder, assistant vice president, corporate staffing at CIGNA in Philadelphia.
Then there’s the matter of competition — workers some ten to 15 years younger than you. “They’re fresh, skilled, and vibrant,” says Linda Shepard, 51, who went back to work after a year and a half of caring for her terminally ill father.
Hampered by these obstacles, too many women stumble into any job they can find, no matter how unsatisfying or low paying. Actually, you can do much better than that — but not by obsessively reading job-search primers or listening to pop-psych sermons from the latest gurus. Instead, heed the lessons of the real experts: women across the country, just like you, who used creative strategies to find rewarding work that pays well.
GET SMART ABOUT SCHOOL
Shari Parsons was a junior- and senior-high school teacher when she left work in 1973 to raise a family. Seventeen years later, she was ready to return, both for her own personal growth and also to help finance her children’s college educations. While she had made a point of continuing to volunteer at school all along, and kept her teaching credentials current, she knew that her 25-year-old math degree would not be very marketable. So she decided to go back to school for a new master’s degree.
Instinctively, she knew something else: If you’re going to invest in education and training, get it in a field where there is urgent need. And get advice from credible people who know the trends.
Parsons called the director of elementary education in her school district in St. Louis Park, MN. The director advised against the elementary education degree Parsons was considering — too common, she said. Instead, she recommended a specialty where demand was growing: special education with an emphasis on learning disabilities.
Parsons followed the advice and enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1990. To get her master’s degree without taking time from her family, and to spread out the cost, Parsons took one to two classes per quarter over four years, graduating in 1994 at age 47.
In 1994, Parsons got the second job she interviewed for, as special needs coordinator at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School.
MAKE VOLUNTEER WORK
Linda Shepard operated a legislative consulting business in California before her widowed father got prostate cancer and needed his only child to move to Chicago to care for him. Shepard planned to live off savings for as much time as her father had left.
That turned out to be a year and a half. She was so focused on caring for him that she didn’t think about her own need to get back to work until after he died in 1993. “My whole life had a giant pushpin in it, with a note that said `on hold,'” she says.
By then, her business was long dead. When she reviewed her options, she realized she had no contacts to start a similar business in Chicago. She hadn’t even interviewed for a job since 1976, and her current knowledge of computers was zero. “It was frightening and humbling. It was as though the world had gone on and I had been in a time capsule.”
Shepard turned to a career-counseling group called Women Employed, which recognized her interest in helping others and put her to work as a volunteer in its own mentoring program for inner-city teenage girls and women. Meanwhile, she attended job-search seminars, put together her resume, and took computer classes at a community college.
In the process, Shepard realized how much she liked the volunteer work. When she heard about a paid opening in the organization, she applied. The fact that they already knew her strengths and skills was a big plus, and she got the job. She is now director of Women Employed’s Career Links program, a mentoring program for girls.
How much opportunity is there to turn volunteer work into paid work? For every 1.3 volunteers, there is approximately one paid position, according to Independent Sector, the umbrella group for about 800 nonprofit U.S. organizations and foundations. That translates into roughly 3 million paid positions in social service, religious, civic, and arts organizations and foundations. Average salary: $15,766 per year.
LOOK FOR A FAMILY-FRIENDLY FIT
Janice Endress, 46, had been employed for 15 years and had worked her way up to vice president at an Atlanta bank, specializing in human resources, before she left to start her own executive search firm for two and a half years. When she had her first child, she shut down her business, but kept her skills fresh by reading professional publications and doing freelance, part-time work in her field — hiring nannies for a local child-care company. After four years and a second child, she set out to work again, but was concerned about having enough energy for a job and toddlers. “I wanted to give myself as much of an advantage as possible,” she says. “I wanted a company that was sensitive to working parents.”
So Endress tapped friends, relatives, and neighbors to find out which companies in her hometown of Hartford were family-friendly. She got referrals to friends of friends and spoke with them to get firsthand information. Her extensive research led her to CIGNA, the nation’s second-largest insurance company.
During a series of interviews there, Endress was able to discreetly assess the company’s attitude toward working moms and children. She saw lots of family photos and grade-school artwork on employees’ desks, and noted that her prospective bosses often talked about their families while interviewing her. She found other evidence in CIGNA’s benefits and policies, which included such options as flextime, job sharing, on-site child care. and telecommuting. Harried parents could even order healthy dinners for their families from the company cafeteria and pick them up before leaving for home.
Endress eventually landed a job at CIGNA as an account manager in health care/human resources, responsible for recruiting and staffing. Six months later, the company asked her to move up to director of human resources and relocate to Florida. She accepted, and has since relocated again; she is now CIGNA’s director of human resources in Phoenix. (Her husband, an outplacement counselor, twice quit his jobs to follow her.)
Though it helped greatly that her company was understanding, Endress stresses that she never took advantage. “I was able to take care of my children,” she says, “but I never missed a deadline. and I never fell short of my obligations.”
TAKE A STEP BACKWARD
Martha Hanson, a computer programmer/analyst, didn’t want to relocate when CSX Corporation moved from Maryland to Florida. As a result, she had to give up her $40,000-a-year job and she became, instead, a stay-at-home mom for three years. But she used an important reentry strategy — taking a step down from the position she’d held before.
“That’s the price you sometimes have to pay when you’ve been out of work for several years,” says Sara Ann Swida, a specialist who helps women find jobs through the Heart of Georgia Technical institute in Dublin, GA. “But once you’re in your field again, you can quickly regain lost ground, because you have a chance to showcase your skills.”
Hanson learned the hard way. After pounding the pavement for a year, she knew it was impossible to get another job at the same level as the one she left three years earlier. Eventually, the divorced mother of two had to apply for welfare to meet her bills.
Hanson had learned her job from intense CSX in-house training. That gave her every skill she needed — but no college degree. Given a choice, she discovered, prospective employers preferred to hire programmer/analysts who were college graduates over those who were not.
“It was hard not to take that personally, because I had the skills,” says Hanson. “But I eventually accepted it. If you want a job, you, re going to have to get that piece of paper.” So she applied for admission to her community college and, over the next two years, earned an associate’s degree in arts and science.
After doing a short internship, she got a part-time position through Maryland’s Project Second Start, a reemployment program for displaced homemakers and workers. Then, a year ago, Hanson landed a full-time job as a programmer. The job involves less responsibility and less software development work than a programmer/analyst’s, but Hanson is glad to be back. “There’s no shame in taking a step down briefly,” she says, “because I know I’ll move up again.”
OFFER TO WORK
When you don’t have experience in your chosen field, you can get training in school, take an entry-level job, or do what Karen Bruno did — create your own opportunity.
Bruno, 49, needed to return to work after separating from her husband and was eyeing a job in hotel catering. But although she had run her husband’s medical practice for five years, she had no professional catering experience. She had, however, organized several charity events over the years at an upscale Philadelphia hotel. So she approached the director of catering there with a novel idea.
“I said, You know I’ve planned my own events here, and you know my energy level. Hire me and l’ll work for free.'” Her plan was to spend three or four months learning the ropes and then hope that a paid position might open up. “If nothing did, I could at least say I trained at this great place,” she says now.
Timing is often everything. As it turned out, one of the hotel’s catering managers was going on maternity leave and Bruno was hired to fill the gap. The hotel insisted on paying her the minimum wage and Bruno gladly agreed.
From January to April 1996, she became a jack-of-all-trades, learning event management, word processing, sales, and promotion. Her boss was impressed enough to create a new position-catering sales representative-and put Btuno’s name on it. She got a real job, and a better salary plus commissions.
LAND A STEPPING-STONE JOB
Back-to-work specialists are famous for telling women that “Full-time Mom” on a resume is the equivalent of senior manager. contractor, comptroller, and purchasing agent.
That’s ridiculousi,, retorts Eileen Leonard, who lost out on countless jobs because she assumed she could simply camouflage her 20-year lack of paid experience. Leonard, the mother of three, holds a dual degree in psychology and human resource development (completed in 1989 when she was still home with her kids), and has a solid track record of volunteer work-including four years, counseling domestic-violence victims. “But most employers didn’t take my volunteer work seriously,” she says.
Which brings up another popular myth. “Even though everybody says women should use their volunteer experience when returning to the paid workforce, what companies really want to see on a resume is paid experience,” says Sara Ann Swida.
Some blame the devaluing of volunteer work on employer insensitivity and male prejudice. But there’s logic behind the preference for paid experience: “It’s giving due credit for the discipline of punching a time clock five days a week, month in and month out,” says Clark Jordan, director of executive education at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration at Camegie Melon University in Pittsburgh. A volunteer is free to come and go as she pleases, while companies depend on employees who show up-even when they don’t want to be there. “Volunteer work is not seen as high-pressure or demanding,” says Jordan.
Leonard knew she needed to show some pay stubs-even if the first job she got was only a bridge to a better one. So, by demonstrating her people skills, she began working as a salesclerk at an upscale clothier, where the owners were willing to take a chance on her.
The tactic paid off, and put Leonard back on employer radar maps. Interviewers became more receptive. A self-starter, Leonard, s heart was set on work that would give her autonomy and reward her initiative and drive. So she decided to get a Realtor’s license. Her track record at the clothing store proved she had selling talent, and she convinced a real estate agency in posh Barrington, IL, to take her on.
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