Tips for Returning to the Workforce after a Long Break


By Kathy McAuliffe

So you have been out of the workforce for the past 10 years.  Perhaps you were child-rearing, or tending to an ill family member who has now passed away.  Maybe you were serving in the armed forces, or running your own fishing boat business in the Bahamas.

Now you want to go back into the world of “work.”  If you approach it the right way, you can make it a less difficult and time-consuming process; however, it will take planning and preparation before you even start your job search.

Here are some ideas to get you thinking about what you need to do to get ready for the plunge.

Gather knowledge to build a positive outlook

Do you realize that you are no less valuable as a potential employee simply because you temporarily left the “workplace?”

You must gather knowledge in order to convince yourself you can find a job.  Only then will you be able to take action that leads to the results you want.

Read all you can and talk to as many people as you can.  Gathering information will arm you with positive images and real-life stories that prove you are employable. is loaded with related information.

The workNet DuPage Career Center provides many levels of job search help.  A great positive step that also helps you develop a more positive attitude is career and job search counseling at the center.

If you are over 50, read what is being said about the value of older workers. Key findings of an AARP research study released in April 2015 reveal that “50+ workers are a critical component of a high-performance business.”

AARP and others have long argued that older workers are reliable, flexible, experienced and possess valuable institutional knowledge. Increasingly, employers seem to want these traits.

Prepare to explain the gap and your reason for coming back

You must prepare to explain the work “gap” right off, but you have to do it right.

Did you make the most out of the time you took “off?”  Have you stayed busy and motivated? Taken online courses or classes at a local college?  Have you volunteered?  Joined organizations?  Assisted?  Held part-time jobs?  Blogged?  Taught?  Organized?  Coordinated?  Planned?  Spearheaded?  Led?  What skills did you grow through these experiences?  Explain how the above has made you marketable for the job you want at this time.

You must also be prepared to talk about why you are coming back into the workforce and how you feel about it. (This will not be about how good it will feel to make money again!)

Be prepared to show interviewers that you are ready and excited to get back into the workforce because, for example, you look forward to working closely with other professionals and interacting with and helping coworkers on a daily basis.  Or maybe you see working at that company and in that particular job as contributing to society, as well as to your own personal development.  You could be chomping at the bit to use your professional skills again, and learning more.  This is what the interviewer needs to hear so your gap fades in importance.

Assess and understand your skills

Of course, one concern about your large gap is whether you have job skills that make you valuable NOW.  It is incumbent on you to prove you have a lot to offer.  You cannot fully assess this on your own; most of us are blind to our strengths and skills.

Jim Fergle, Job Search Services Manager in the DuPage County Workforce Development Division in Lisle points out, “They need help to see what they have to offer.  Most of us can’t see what we can do.”

Fergle describes a marine vet he met with who thought all he could do was shoot and kill.  Fergle found out his rank and was quickly able to point out how experienced the veteran was without realizing it.

Look at your everyday life – what do you do?  Don’t overlook anything.  Try to see it as clearly as possible.  You must do soul-searching with somebody helping you see what you’ve been responsible for, what your daily tasks have been; what kind of thinking, and soft and hard skills were required.  Then list what skills and interests you honed during your time outside the workforce, i.e.:


  • Organize
  • Coordinate
  • Attend
  • Investigate
  • Track
  • Field
  • Work
  • Design
  • Write
  • Feed
  • Volunteer
  • Arrange
  • Call
  • Bathe
  • Photograph
  • Schedule
  • Research
  • Clothe
  • Ensure
  • Budget
  • Investigate
  • Teach
  • Purchase
  • Meet
  • Plan
  • Advise
  • Create
  • Lead
  • Manage
  • Remind
  • Build
  • Promote
  • Analyze
  • Present
  • Speak publicly
  • Execute

Workers need to look at jobs that better fit them in light of their experience, age and change in interests since leaving the workforce. Think about a new job that fits you at this time in your life.  You are older and more experienced than before.  For example, you possibly can’t take a job that is physically demanding, but you are great at managing, planning, executing, coordinating, etc

Go to our website for some great resources including O*Net Online for career exploration and job analysis.

For help in Skills Assessment, come to the workNet DuPage Career Center in Lisle.  To get started, apply for an intake appointment.  You will use your list of skills and experiences to craft meaty sentences for your resume and to do well-focused job searches.

If you have some time to refresh or add to your skills, do so before you start looking for work; it will get you a better position, and faster.

Network, network, network

Anyone’s #1 key to finding work is NETWORKING – face-to-face and voice-to-voice connection; knowing generally what you want to do and why you can do it.  How do your skills and current interests transfer into it?

Some jobs are obvious natural fits. Others require a reading between the lines.

“I talked with a woman who had been home for 20 years, raising her family,” said Jim Fergle.

“While she was telling her story, I started picturing her at our front desk, where we had an opening.  It demands many of the skills that family life does,” he points out.  These skills include empathy, coordinating, researching, communicating, conveying information, fielding phone calls, tracking events / keeping a calendar, serving as a go-between, etc.

If you have a huge time gap in your work experience, nobody will notice you online.  “Google gets 2 resumes per minute.  58% of those resumes are tossed out for just one typo,” says Fergle.

“You must meet people in person and talk with them, establish trust, build rapport, explain the gap,” he says.  “This means ‘don’t isolate; get out there.’”

Attend job clubs, seminars, workshops, classes. Go to fun events where you might meet people with whom you have something in common. This might include “meetups,” in your area, thousands of which are continuously being created for thousands of reasons, and which promote themselves online.  You might find a group for professionals in your desired field, or you might join one of the meetings just for fun and meet people that lead you to other good ideas.

As for reaching out to companies and applying online for their job openings, Fergle suggests, reach out to smaller companies with fewer than 500 employees.  There are far more of them than of large corporations.  The smaller companies are also more flexible and easier to break into.

Use social media. 

You never know who might lead you where you need to go. Browse through your contacts on LinkedIn and Facebook, in your email, your pile of business cards, your old hard copy phone book, etc.  Reach out and let them know you’re getting back into the workplace.  Former supervisors know you and your work.  Be sure to contact them.  Caution:  Do not ask them to hire you.  They now know you are available and will let you know if they are interested in that possibility.

In time, try to schedule coffee with your old contacts.  Let them know you are looking.  Talk about what’s happening in the old industry and maybe pick up a few useful hints about how you can be more appealing as a job candidate today.

Do your jobs research

Thinking of seeking a position you used to do professionally?  Start by researching what’s out there.  Are your current skills and abilities in line with what employers are seeking now?  Look at your old career, before your work “break.”  What did you do?  Can you still do it?  Do you still want to do it?  Be honest with yourself.

If your old skills have fallen behind and you won’t be training to bring them up-to-date, again, consider going for a job that matches the skills and experience you have right now. What were your skills before you took a break?  What are they now?  Talk with somebody who knows you to get a more objective view of what you can do.

As you assess where you are, do you feel pulled toward something new?  Research job openings in areas of your new interest.  Read the job descriptions.  What skills do you need? Do you have them, or need some training? Be willing to start in an entry level job to get where you want to be, but be prepared to explain why you are truly interested in entry level:  You want a chance to learn and grow your skills in a new area, yes, but some employers worry you will take entry level and leave quickly thereafter.

Create a functional resume

Jim Fergle and many workforce development professionals advise that you create a functional resume, rather than a chronological one.  The format of this type of resume focuses on your skills and successes rather than the precise dates of your past employment. Create experience headings to match all the work you’ve been doing during your time away from the world of “work.”  These might include “Marketing,” “Project Leadership,” “Gap Analysis,” “Program Planning,”  “Systems Analysis”, or “Teaching,” for example.  Below each one, list your achievements accordingly.

Put your skills toward the top of your resume to catch the eye of the recruiter and demonstrate what you have to offer.

Remember to include your transferable skills i.e., skills that transfer directly to the business world and/or the job for which you are applying.  Did you run your own business?  Balance the books?  Did you head up the PTA?  Spearhead and run an arts program at the school?  Develop marketing materials for your business or for an historic organization in your community?  Did you help establish and run a children’s reading group at your local library or hospital?  Organize a book group and plan special related events? Revamp policies for your condo association?  Lead the charge in favor of a political candidate?

Learn to be flexible on salary

As for salary, be reasonable.

You made $80k the last time you were paid to do a job.  Can you get that now?

“Probably not,” says Fergle.

Many positions pay less than they did 10 years ago.  The important thing is that you get back to work again and start reaping all the benefits of being employed: a renewed sense of purpose, new challenges, new relationships, new experience and skills; a chance to reinvent yourself and make yourself more marketable for the future.

The most important aspects of salary negotiation are: (1) confidence in your value regarding the particular job (not because you are a great person who needs the money,) and (2) arming yourself with information about salaries in your marketplace.

Employers hire you because they believe you will add value to the business. Be prepared to show that you are worth a higher salary, before the salary conversation even comes up!

If you follow the above suggestions you should be ready to start applying for positions.  Good luck!


DuPage job-seekers come to the workNet DuPage Career Center for help in their job searches and to investigate whether they qualify for training scholarships.

Explore our website to see the many services we provide to these job-seekers and also to DuPage employers, all at no charge!»