Re-entering the Workforce after a Hiatus

Re-entering the Workforce after a Hiatus

The recession arising from the COVID pandemic has forced many workers to decide if they should take a break in pursuing a formal employer-employee work arrangement.  Corporate layoffs and downsizings have brought unemployment to many, and a bleak business outlook in many sectors of the economy has compelled others to consider making a career change.  The fact that this coincides with a deadly, rampant infectious disease means that personal health and family issues increasingly dominate concerns over career management.  With fewer jobs to be had during a time of at-home schooling and nursing home shutdowns, we’ve entered a new era where more workers will have multi-year gaps on their resumes.

This is a fairly common occurrence during a recession and it’s aftermath, and we can take direction from lessons learned from past downturns.  Frequently workers will turn to contract-based consulting projects in order to make ends meet.  And regardless of economic conditions we can also learn from working mother’s who have taken several years off to raise children before returning to full-time work.  When circumstances change, how best to re-enter the workforce after a prolonged pause in employment?  As prospective employees become job candidates they can anticipate questions about those gaps and will need to have clear explanations.  They will also to manage their own expectations about the kind of job they will find.

Explaining the situation

The best advice is to be pro-active and truthful about your story.  Explain what happened with details, and understand that the interviewer or hiring manager also has a personal life and will empathize with you in most situations, and will also appreciate the candor.  It’s true that they may not understand a decision to take a pro-longed “sabbatical” to travel and re-energize, but they will usually respect and understand decisions to prioritize family or health matters.  In the case of an external period of “consulting” you must be able to demonstrate that you had real clients who paid you real money, including those who can provide references.  It’s OK and appropriate to explain that you worked in that manner (typically a 1099 contractor in the U.S.) while you selectively searched for your next full-time, permanent position.  Most tenured hiring managers have experienced layoffs and downsizings themselves and will understand this situation.

Managing expectations

This is where it gets a little more difficult.  Intellectually, we all know that workers have the same skills and abilities at the point of workforce re-entry that they did in the past.  In fact, in some cases they are more skilled because of re-training, an advanced degree, or experiences gained from challenging contract projects.  But the reality is that not everyone will see it that way.  Many will perceive that rapidly changing marketplace conditions will leave workers behind if they have not remained “in the game.”  More importantly, we must not forget that job-seeking is an inherently competitive process.  Everything else being equal, a hiring manager is more likely to select a candidate who is currently working in the same market as the employing company when compared to a candidate who has had prior experience in that market.

These realities may force us to reconsider the scope, title and compensation that one should expect in the first job after workforce re-entry.  Titles for the same jobs can vary from company to company, but it is somewhat unrealistic to expect a higher title, job scope and compensation package in the new role as compared to the last position held before the hiatus.  Every situation is different, of course, and circumstances may allow for a step up at that time, particularly if the new employer has successfully worked with the employee in the past, including in a recent contract relationship.  In general, however, I recommend that we manage our expectations to a lateral move and be pleasantly surprised if something more senior is offered.

These are some of the common issues to consider when re-entering the workforce after an extended employment gap.  It’s very likely that we’ll be seeing more of this in the future as the post-COVID workforce evolves.  As always, I encourage your comments and questions.

Dave Murphy

The Alpine Group

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