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How moms are getting back into the workforce with 'returnships'

Planning to return to the paid workforce in 2022? Ten strategies to help.

Nearly 2 million women left the workforce due to the caregiving crisis created by COVID, exacerbating an already big problem. In fact, women’s workforce participation is at its lowest level since 1988.

If you are one of these women and are now considering a return to the workforce, you may wonder where to begin. In my work as Executive Director of Path Forward, a non-profit that empowers caregivers to return to paid work primarily through "returnship" programs (which are return-to-work programs for parents who have taken time off from their careers), I have worked with a hundred employers and hundreds of successful returners. Here are 10 tested strategies to help you navigate the road back to your career. 

1 — Define what success means for YOU

Ask yourself why you want to go back to work. Is it financial need, self-fulfillment, or something else? Once you know your motivation, you can define what a successful return will look like to you. Then write a list of what you love to do, what you want to learn more about, and the things you know you can do with your eyes closed. Leave out everything you know how to do but disliked from your past career. This will become the essence of your next job description and will guide you to a successful career restart.

2 — Recognize that going back to work is not selfish.

If you’re feeling guilty about spending time on your job search, focus on the benefits that will come with paid work. Talk with your family about the things you might be able to do or afford with your additional income. If you find yourself thinking “My income didn’t make that much of a difference” (or hear your partner saying the same), do some calculations on the impact on future earnings. And don’t forget the bigger picture — talk about what you enjoyed about your career and the impact you can have by returning.

3 — Dedicate a small amount of time consistently

Carve out a few hours a day to research companies, update your resume and build your network. Smaller chunks of time, spent consistently, will be more effective than trying to find a full day a few times per month. Create a list of activities broken out into one, two and three-hour activities. This will make it easier to pick up where you left off and make progress every day.

4 — Find physical space

In her book “Crunch Time,” sociologist Aliya Rao shared research that found that unemployed men created or upgraded home office space and used that space to shut out the distractions of the household and focus on job searching. Moms rarely do this. One way to protect your time and attention is to turn a corner of your home into a dedicated space for job searching, and train other members of your household to limit interruptions when you’re in that space. This will help the whole family take your job search time more seriously.

5 — Network, network, network

Use LinkedIn to connect with everyone you know — neighbors, friends, other parents, and former colleagues. Leverage Zoom, or other video platforms, to reconnect with people in a way that’s much simpler than trying to arrange an in-person coffee. Job searching is a numbers game — the more people with whom you connect and reconnect, the better your chances of getting connected to a great opportunity.

6 — Invest in yourself

When you aren’t working for pay it can be hard to justify expenses like childcare, reskilling or coaching. But expenses that give you time or a confidence boost will get you back to work faster. There are lots of online course options (some free). If you can, start investing in childcare now to give you time to focus on your search. If money is an issue, ask family or friends to give you a few hours a week, or swap with another mom who’s also looking for time.

7 — Fill your own cup first

If you’ve spent the last two — or 20 — years focused on giving to others, you may be feeling burned out and resentful. Recognize the toll on your emotional and mental well being. Schedule some time in between your job search and home life to do something you love. Self care is not an indulgence — it’s a discipline that requires focus. Ironically when you truly take care of yourself, you’ll be more able to meet the needs not only of your family, but of your job search and future career as well.

8 — Take risks and be persistent

Apply to the job, even if your resume isn’t perfect. Ask for a virtual coffee even if you think that person must be “much too busy.” The truth is that successful people hear “no” far more often than they hear “yes.” Job searches are hard, and it takes courage to put yourself in a position where you might be rejected. But keep going. Raise your hand. Put yourself out there. The rejections will sting, but the “yes” will eventually come. And when it does, it will be worth it.

9 — Get support

Getting support may be as simple as asking for it. Consider finding a group of people in similar circumstances with whom you can share ups and downs. In a world where mothers’ professional work is often seen as optional, find the people who will cheer you on and help you to keep going.

10 — Don’t hide the gap

So many returners ask questions about “hiding” their gap. And I get it: There’s a stigma around career breaks. But I recommend owning your story. Be open about the reason for your gap — and the reason for your return! Hiring managers are likely to be more open to returners than they were pre-pandemic. Plus, if you’re applying for a returnship or other formal return-to-work program, your career break is actually required. The right companies will appreciate the authentic you and the tremendous skills and perspective that you bring because of your life experiences.

Tami Forman is the Executive Director of Path Forward.