How to improve your chances of getting hired after a career break.
Chandralekha Mukerji Edition: July 7, 2013
Niveditha Naik, a software engineer, quit her job after working for three years at Infosys. She wasn't unhappy at work, but family was a priority.
"My husband was in the merchant navy and used to be away for months. Even when he was home, we hardly got time together, as commuting to and from work took me four hours every day," says Naik.
She quit in February 2008. Her daughter was born the following year, and her son in 2011. When her son turned one, she was ready to go back to work.
However, finding a job after the four-year break was difficult. "As soon as recruiters saw I had taken a long break they would discount my application," says Naik. Her MBA degree, through a distance learning programme, didn't count. "A break is considered a blot in the CV and one has to be persevering and ready to make compromises to get back into the workforce," says Rituparna Chakraborty, Co-founder and Senior Vice President at HR services firm, TeamLease Services.
Naik did get job offers but none related to her core skills. Finally, she had to take up a sales job in the financial sector. "From day one, I felt overqualified. It was no comparison with the earlier work I was doing," says Naik. She has quit again and will now wait for the right job. She is not sure how long it will take. "I had a strong start and had I not taken the break, companies would have wanted to hire me," she says.
Whatever the reason - family, health or education - for a career break, a person who takes one makes recruiters apprehensive even if they are convinced of her ability. So those trying to get back must be prepared to explain the reasons for the break. They must be ready to face questions such as: What if the problem resurfaces? Why does she want to join work again? What did she do during the break?"
"Most organisations are not equipped to handle job breaks. There is little in the form of coaching, mentorship and assessment," says Sairee Chahal, co-founder, fleximoms.com, which connects women to employers who offer flexitime options and runs a 'back to work' programme, Second Chance, for women who have taken career breaks.
Why only women? "Other than to pursue higher education or for health reasons, men generally do not take long breaks," says Chahal. Women need maternity breaks, and it is usually mothers who put careers on hold to take care of the children.
Other reasons are marriage and relocation. "Though some men also attend our programme or are looking for flexi-career options, their proportion is small," adds Chahal.
The ratio may be skewed but the difficulties of getting back are the same for both genders. Rejoining means adjusting to a newer and more evolved marketplace of skills and stepping out of one's comfort zone. Here are some ways to retain your employability during the break so that the comeback can be as smooth as possible.
Analyse your appetite: Before the HR manager puts this question to you, ask yourself: why do I want to work again? Unless you are doing it for financial reasons, the first step should be to analyse your decision to return to work. Think about how much you are capable of handling. especially if you had quit due to personal responsibilities.
"Had I the option of working from home or flexible timings, I wouldn't have resigned," says Amanpreet Bindra, who left her job at Reliance Communications as she felt it was coming in the way of her responsibilities as a mother. She now works for an NGO from home. Also, assess your current interests. It is not necessary to return to the old role. You can use this transition moment to make a career shift.
Gauri Bafna was Consulting Head, Human Resources, PwC, Jakarta, when she left the job to take care of her family. After 10 years, she wanted to work again, but not in the corporate world. She did a course in bakery and confectionery and turned a hobby into a business. "This is not for money. I'm pursuing a passion," she says. She runs Swetcentric from home and bakes on order. She plans to open an outlet soon.
Bafna had to build from scratch. But it's not the only way. There are a range of options. For example, running a franchise or becoming part of a partner network or re-seller programme can be easier than going solo. You can also work with start-ups that value your experience or be a consultant in your area of expertise. "Combine your experience with developments during the break to assess where you can fit in best," says Chakraborty of TeamLease. For instance, Bindra used her experience in the telecom industry with Reliance to work for an NGO, where flexible options is easier to find.
Stay up to date: Employers want people who are abreast of the latest trends related to their work. Therefore, stay updated during the break. The traditional ways to brush up skills and knowledge - books, magazines and courses - help. However, staying in the field through freelance work is best. "Rather than do a course, if possible, take up part-time assignments," says Sunil Goel, MD, GlobalHunt. One can also help a charity, work for NGOs, enhance digital skills or help start-ups. This will give the impression that you have used the break well.
Network: Keep in touch with old colleagues and employers. Networking will help you search for an appropriate opening or get good references that can increase your chances of getting selected. People from the industry can be a good source of information as well about changes at the workplace. "Spend time talking to and getting mentored by professionals. This will not only help you keep abreast of what is going on in your field but also create goodwill," says Chakraborty.
Redraft the resume: A gap does not show well. But trying to cover it up makes it worse. So, explain the reasons clearly, either in the covering letter or in a line in the resume. "Be clear. Most important, convey your sincerity and eagerness to take on the new assignment," says Chakraborty. Recruiters often check your digital footprint. "Align your profile on social and professional networks with your resume," says E. Balaji, MD and CEO, Randstad India. If you do not have an account on these networks, create one.
Be flexible: You are at a disadvantage at this stage and so, being flexible will help. Salary, for one, should not be a big deciding factor. "Companies always look at the last role and the compensation. So, do not compare your pay cheque or job profile with those who started with you and have grown while you were on a sabbatical," says Goel of GlobalHunt . It doesn't mean you should allow yourself to be exploited. The compensation should be in keeping with your experience, and industry standards.
It is often easier to make a comeback in emerging high-growth sectors or smaller firms. Emphasis should be on job profile and prospects, not on the size of the organisation. "The new company I joined was small compared with my previous organisation, but the business was expanding and growth prospects were good," says Bindra.
Also, it is easier to get into roles that focus on individual skills and competence and not so much on the ability to manage teams and organisational structures. "One has a better chance of returning in teaching, programming and recruiting than in a managerial or marketing role," says Chakraborty of TeamLease. "One's ability to persevere, confidence and readiness to make adjustments to get back to work matter."