Reentering the workforce refers to searching for and finding a job after months or years away from full-time, paid employment. Breaks in employment may occur for a number of reasons, including family and child care needs, divorce, relocation, disability, job loss, imprisonment, or military service. Retirement is another reason a worker might leave the job market and later seek to return. According to a 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, “The Role of Re-entry in the Retirement Process,” 15 percent of career workers take at least one job after retiring from or leaving their career job.
Oftentimes workers who leave the workforce plan to reenter at a later date. For example, some people choose to leave their jobs to raise a family but plan to return when their children are older. Others choose to step away to pursue further education that will advance their careers upon their return. Sometimes, however, reentry into the workforce is not planned. Unplanned reentry is a reaction to or a form of protection against unforeseen life events, such as family illness or economic downturns. For instance, a parent who left the workforce with no intention of returning may find that his or her family cannot survive without that income. Similarly, retirees may make an unplanned return to work in an effort to combat boredom or to supplement retirement income.
Some of these changes were the result of social transformations. For women in this period, a rise in the divorce rate, a later average age of marriage, and greater participation in higher education led to higher rates of both entering and reentering the workforce. This is illustrated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review, which indicates that the participation rate of women in the labor force grew from 34 percent in 1950 to 60 percent in 2000. The number of employed women grew from 18 million in 1950 to 66 million in 2000.
Caring for family and children continued to influence how women participated in the workforce in the late 20th century, and women often suffered negative consequences for leaving and then reentering the workforce. During the 1990s, for example, Bureau of Labor Statistics studies showed that women who left the labor market for family-related reasons received less money when they reentered the workforce than women who had not had a break in their employment. In addition to losing seniority, these workers were offered fewer on-the-job training opportunities than their colleagues. Their time away from the workforce led to an employer-perceived decrease in the value of their skills, and they were considered high risk for leaving their jobs again.
In this same period, the employment rate was also increasing among retirement-age workers, who had begun to reenter the workforce as the definition of retirement evolved. A one-time permanent retirement was no longer typical. This trend continued into the early 21st century. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Monthly Labor Review noted that the percentage of workers older than the age of 55 was predicted to increase from 13 percent in 2000 to 20 percent in 2020.
In the early 21st century, income insecurity and employment flexibility became more common in American society. During periods of
economic turmoil, such as the worldwide economic downturn that began in 2008, many employers were forced to downsize, restructure, and lay off employees. Many people lost their jobs, and a significant number of these workers became unemployed for the long term. Because of these trends among women, retirees, and the unemployed, reentry in the job market was better understood by the early 21st century than it had been in previous decades.
Some workers reenter the workforce after receiving a new academic degree. Others may return to employment after taking time off to cope with medical problems or to adjust to the challenges of living with a disability. Vocational rehabilitation agencies assist the disabled, including those who have become blind or deaf later in life, with finding employment. These organizations offer placement and training services as needed.
Senior citizens who have retired from their careers also commonly reenter the work force. Whether returning to full-time work, finding part-time jobs, or launching second careers, they are motivated by a variety of reasons, including financial need (possibly due to a decrease in pension benefits or a need to provide for dependent children), boredom, the desire to try a new type of job, or the need to remain active. Sometimes retirees take a bridge job between retiring from a career job and leaving the workforce entirely. A bridge job is not necessarily the same
kind of position held before retirement but one that allows the retiree to temporarily reenter the workforce.
Other groups that seek to reenter the work-force include veterans and military personnel such as National Guard members. There are a number of programs, both private and public, to support their employment efforts, including the federal Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS). Individuals may also seek reentry into the workforce after being released from jails and prisons. The U.S. Department of Labor funds groups that prepare adult inmates to reenter the workforce. For example, its Employment and Training Administration supports the Training to Work-Adult Reentry program. By 2013 more than 700,000 inmates were being released annually from state and federal prisons and needed assistance in their transition, including returning to employment.
As a job candidate seeking to reenter the workforce, you should draw on your prior experience. Unlike first-time job seekers who have no fulltime job experience and have not conducted a search for employment before, you can understand the effort and organization needed to reenter the workforce. However, you may still encounter difficulties compared to those who have had continuous career paths, as these candidates have remained immersed in their business or industry and benefit from the positive appearance of continuous employment. You must be prepared to overcome any perceived knowledge gaps.
When applying to reenter the workforce, you should recognize that your goals and needs are often different than those of other types of job seekers. You might be starting a new type of career, or you may need to spend time refamiliarizing yourself with your chosen career or industry and its job market. You might need to gain experience outside of fulltime employment, whether through part-time jobs or additional training, to attract the attention of employers.
Though employers do not necessarily regard employment gaps as the negative they once were, you should be prepared to market yourself in a way that addresses this issue. One way to accomplish this is through the use of a résumé with a functional format instead of a chronological organization. The functional résumé is built around skills and tasks rather than job history and is best for those with a briefer employment history. However, if you have a lengthy employment history, you can list years of employment, rather than listing specific dates, in your chronology and include a short skills summary at the top of your résumé to emphasize your best points. Your cover letter should be strong, positive, and error free. It should also include an explanation of long-term gaps in employment history in a brief but positive fashion.
Whether writing a résumé, networking with a contact, or describing yourself in an interview or online profile, you should be aware of your strengths, skills, and weaknesses, and package yourself to meet the expectations of those hiring. Skills gained through life experience should be marketed as such. For example, if you left the workforce to raise children and manage a household, you can describe any organizational, personal management, decision-making, financial, and negotiation skills acquired or enhanced in the process. If possible, you should work on maintaining, if not improving, job skills and stay on top of technological developments during your time away from the workplace.
You should not make apologies for employment gaps. Instead, be positive and assertive about them, emphasizing your responsibility, maturity, and confidence in addition to your skills. Highlighting education, extracurricular activities, awards, and other recognitions in these forums and obtaining positive references from previous employers can also be helpful.
Once you have reflected on your skills and researched the market in which you plan to apply, the next step is networking. If you decide to seek a position similar to or in the industry in which you were previously employed, network among your former colleagues, including employees who were once junior to you. They may have advanced in your time away and can be good, positive sources of job information. Also network at job fairs or through your school's career service or alumni association. Professional groups, unions, business conferences, trade shows, and recruiters offer additional options for networking. Informational interviews can provide knowledge about the state of a business or industry and available jobs, as well as networking contacts. Though you may experience rejection when trying to arrange such interviews, the effort can result in important, firsthand information about the jobs you are seeking.
As you prepare for your job search, it is important to understand that it will take time, effort, research, and organization to reenter the workforce. Keeping your expectations and desires realistic is critical. Drawing up an action plan that includes mini goals and simple steps can help you clarify your priorities and make your job search more successful. You should also be open to options such as volunteering, participating in community activities, or accepting an internship while you are searching for a job. Temporary agency employment, seasonal jobs, and part-time work can help improve your résumé, skills, and marketability while you seek a permanent position.
As part of your job search, be prepared to address the concern that you have too little or too much work experience. If the former is true, target entry-level positions, especially those with job training included, and emphasize skills you have developed outside of the workplace. If the latter, fight off any potential age bias by highlighting recent training or educational efforts, and work to demonstrate how your skills can benefit the employer. In either case, be honest about barriers or potential barriers to employment such as child care issues or travel, and be ready to address how each barrier can be overcome.
When you reenter the workforce after time away from full-time employment, you will not necessarily have the same job or type of job that you held previously. You may also find that your employment experience is very different. You should be ready for the working conditions involved in a new position, including workload demands and deadlines, and be open to continuing to learn and train even after starting. You should also be aware of your workplace rights, including accommodations for disabilities or religious beliefs, the right of confidentiality of medical information, and freedom from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.
Reentering the workforce can require some lifestyle adjustments. You may find, for example, that you must work to strike a new balance between your work life and personal life. Understanding your needs in both areas before and during your job search can help you make better decisions about the best employment situation for you.
As you plan to return to the workforce, you should make an effort to practice the work-related skills you may not have exercised in some time. You can prepare for the expected demands of employment, such as working with people and within imposed time constraints, by participating in volunteer work and treating such experiences as a real job. Keep in mind that entering a business or organization takes time, and you must undergo a process of integration. Build positive relationships with coworkers through activities within and, sometimes, outside of the workplace, but be sure to remain professional. Finding a mentor, someone with experience who can help guide you, within your new company can be valuable as well. Mentoring relationships can provide a positive learning experience and can help you build relationships and establish your work goals.