People take career breaks for many reasons: To raise children, care for ailing relatives, manage their own health issues, or even explore personal growth opportunities (think travel and volunteer work).
Regardless of why an accounting or finance professional temporarily leaves the workforce, figuring out how to re-engage after a long break can feel like a daunting task.
“People who have taken an extended leave can often feel a real loss of professional confidence, as they may feel that their skills or knowledge are somewhat outdated,” said Karen Danker, a UK-based return-to-work expert and the head of coaching for the organisation Women Returners. “What we’ve found is that with the right strategy and support, they can overcome these barriers very quickly.”
Luckily, accounting professionals considering a re-entry into the profession can adopt concrete strategies that make themselves competitive job candidates to potential employers and also help them to thrive in their new roles.
Be forthcoming about your career break. When updating your CV, be honest that you’ve had an extended leave but don’t apologise for it. Danker recommended writing “career break” into a reverse chronology CV the same way you would list recent job experience up top, with the relevant dates.
It’s also vital to emphasise any transferrable skills that you may have picked up along the way. For example, someone who has taken time off to care for ailing relatives may have engaged in freelance projects or volunteer work. Each of those should be listed on the CV, under headings like “self-employed work” and “volunteer experience.”
“What we often find is that people have done a lot of interesting things and gained skills that can add enormous value to organisations,” said Danker. “The key is to tease out these new skills and to frame your career break in terms of the experiences that you’ve gained.”
Take control of your narrative. When talking about your career break to interviewers or potential recruiters, Danker recommended framing the narrative like a “sandwich”.
First, talk about your professional experiences, skills, and accomplishments prior to taking leave, sandwiching the career break in the middle and ending with what you are looking to do next.
“If you begin with ‘I’ve been on a break for 10 years’, that’s what people are going to remember,” said Danker.
Instead, she suggested this approach: “I am a qualified chartered accountant who worked in the sector for ten years and then took some time off to start a family and now am ready to get back into the field.”
Danker said the key is to frame the conversation.
“It’s about shaping the narrative,” she said.
Get up to date on industry trends. Before applying for new positions, try to familiarise yourself with trends in the profession and how it has changed in recent years. That might mean subscribing to trade publications and engaging with local professional networks, where you can update your technical skills (and perhaps even take a certificate course) and attend networking events.
“It’s really important to be an active member of an association like CIMA, or other professional accounting bodies,” said Matt Wadsworth, the London-based managing director of Global Accounting Network. “You can learn about positions that you would never know existed if you only relied on online searches.”
Map out your network and reach out virtually. One-on-one networking is another good way to learn how the profession has changed since you’ve left and how you might best fit in now. Amid public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person meetings might not be possible, but you can ask for phone calls or video meetings via Skype or another platform.
Danker recommended beginning by mapping out all your contacts — including people you’ve met doing community service, fundraising, or at religious functions, as well as former employers, managers, and co-workers.
“Think of it as a big brainstorming activity,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t realise how rich our networks actually are until we sit down and write it all out.”
Next, consider contacting key members of your network to ask for a virtual coffee break, and focus on asking for professional advice rather than for a job.
“Directly asking for a job or for introductions can put people on the spot. Instead, you want to frame it in terms of asking their advice and thoughts, while also representing yourself professionally,” she said. “This is your opportunity to sell yourself, your skills, and experience.”
And finally, because a lot of returners initially lack professional confidence, Danker recommended activating your network strategically by starting with the people you feel the most comfortable with.
“When going to those first meetings, people can feel quite nervous,” she said. “So, it’s a good idea to start with the warmest contacts first, to help you rebuild that professional confidence.”
Consider applying for a “returnship”. Returnships are essentially internships for experienced workers to help them re-enter the workforce and find jobs at the equivalent of their previous level, rather than having to start from the bottom of the totem pole. While not all companies offer these, they have become more and more popular all over the world — with the financial industry leading the way, according to Danker.
But even if the company you’re joining doesn’t have a returnship programme, there are ways to create similar opportunities for yourself. You might consider reaching out to past employers to see if they need contract help, and connecting with recruiters with experience working with those re-entering the profession.
Once you’re in the door to start your new position, there are ways to create opportunities similar to those that normally result from a returnship, Danker said — for example, by cultivating relationships with potential mentors, taking advantage of internal offerings for skills trainings, and regularly checking in with your manager to get feedback and set goals.
And finally, while it’s normal to feel nervous about getting back to work, realise that it’s probably not going to be nearly as difficult to get back into the swing of things as you think. While a number of new technologies may have been implemented since you left the workforce, the critical-thinking, decision-making, and influencing skills that you’ve worked hard to build will continue to serve you well.
“Increasingly, recruiters are looking beyond the gap,” Danker said. “They realise that these candidates are a real source of untapped talent and have a tremendous amount to offer in terms of skills, experience, and expertise.”
— Malia Politzer is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.