Are you considering a career break for childcare, eldercare, extended travel, pursuing a personal interest, or some other reason? Here’s what you need to do now to pave the way for your eventual re-entry.
- Don’t assume a full career break is the only option. Ask your employer for what you want. Do you desire more schedule control or a different work location? Can you change your working hours or days, or create a home and office hybrid arrangement? Would contractor status work for you? Decide what you want and make the case to your employer. They have invested in you, and you have institutional knowledge that could be expensive to replace. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot about how, when and where work gets done. If your employer is not able or willing to make adjustments to accommodate your needs, then you can consider a career break or a non-traditional work arrangement elsewhere.
- Stay connected professionally. Most of us who have taken career breaks in the past advise “keeping a toe in the water” if possible. In other words, don’t drop out of your career completely. Can you work for your former employer on a project or contract basis? Can you cover the occasional parental leave? Can you freelance? Can you teach a college course as an adjunct lecturer, utilizing your subject matter expertise? Consider these options now, and reach out to former classmates and colleagues who have tried these approaches to ask for advice. What do they recommend? And what do they wish they had known earlier?
- Document your work achievements in real time. Start documenting your career accomplishments, failures, and milestone moments — anytime you learned something significant. Your post-career-break-self will thank you. When you return from a career break, you’ll need to have anecdotes about your significant prior work experiences scripted and rehearsed for interviews. Documenting them now, in the moment, will make them much more vivid and detailed than if you try to recall them years later.
- Nurture your relationships with colleagues at all levels within your organization. This includes those who are junior to you — whether you mentor, manage or simply know them. Remember, while you are on career break, people who are now junior to you could be moving up, and they may be in a position to make a connection or open a door for you when you are ready to return to work. We even have members of our iRelaunch community who are working for people who used to work for them.
- Make a list of your work and alumni contacts, person by person. While you are still working, create a record of your career network, including suppliers, lawyers, accountants, customers, etc., in addition to your current work colleagues and fellow alumni from your alma mater. This will be an important resource later when you are on career break and want to keep in touch or re-connect with people from the past. LinkedIn is an excellent way to track your network and stay connected with professional contacts.
- Identify requirements to keep certifications, licenses, or other credentials current while on career break. If you hold certifications, licenses, or other credentials, you’ll want to make sure you know in advance how to keep them current so you don’t miss any deadlines. This may only involve continuing to pay an annual fee but could also involve continuing education coursework or periodic exams.
- Go into your career break eyes wide open as to the cost of taking it. Use the CAP calculator to calculate the cost of taking your career break. This interactive tool takes your current income and makes assumptions about salary increases, social security, compounding and other factors to give you a calculation of the all-in foregone income of career breaks of different lengths. I’m pretty sure if I had known the cost of my 11-year career break going into it, I would have returned to work much sooner.
- Don’t put off important life decisions. If you are considering having children, don’t try to wait for the “right time” professionally. No time is perfect. Women we have heard from over the years regretted trying to time their pregnancies strategically from a career perspective, as the longer they waited, the more likely they would be facing infertility and other child-bearing related problems.
If you consider these recommendations in advance, you will be in a better position to manage your career with intention. But also realize that you can’t control everything. For example, my employer unexpectedly collapsed while I was on maternity leave with my first child, so I did not have a company to return to. We weren’t getting any younger and were planning to have more kids in close succession. My decision not to go after the next big job marked the beginning of what became an 11-year career break.
That said, everyone’s situation is different and there are so many factors that go into career break decisions (not the least of which is financial). It is hard to generalize from any one person’s experience. So consider checking out Relaunch Success Stories and the 3,2,1 iRelaunch podcast to hear directly from relaunchers about their career journeys.
Carol Fishman Cohen is the CEO and Co-founder of iRelaunch. iRelaunch has worked with over 250 employers to build and expand career reentry programs of all kinds, and supports a community of over 100,000 “relaunchers” who are returning to work after career breaks from one to over 20 years. Carol is a relauncher herself, having left a Wall Street corporate finance role to take an 11-year career break before resuming her finance career at an investment firm. Carol is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and her TED/TEDx talk on career reentry has nearly 3.7 million views.