Returning to work after a career break

Lauren Pettitt | 20 January 2020

Guest blog: Are you planning your return to work after a career break? Charlotte Westwood-Dunkley knows all too well about the 'eye-opening' process and shares with us her 8 tips on getting back into marketing after a break. She talks about everything, from applying for roles to what she found had changed in the industry.

What a difference a year makes! In January 2019, I was in the throes of trying to resume my marketing career after a long break, wondering if that elusive ‘perfect’ job would ever appear. Fast forward to January 2020, and I’ll soon be celebrating my first anniversary in a great job after a year full of exciting opportunities and achievements. 

Looking back, I realise that when I set about returning to work I wasn’t aware quite how much certain aspects of the job market had changed since I’d last been working. I had to learn the hard way, but here are the tips that would have been useful for me before I started. 

1. Be clear about what you want from your next role

The last time I was job hunting you had to wait each week for the Guardian’s Media & Marketing jobs section to come out, then pore over the ads, cutting out those of interest. That seems so quaint now! Today you just sign on to recruitment websites and dozens of (often irrelevant) jobs appear in your inbox, so the first lesson I learnt was to be clear about what you’re looking for and set your search criteria accordingly. Be honest with yourself and prioritise your requirements – type of role, salary, hours, commute – or you will be overwhelmed. And seek out larger companies’ websites, as many of them don’t advertise elsewhere. Also, always apply through an employer’s website if you can, as applications submitted on the general sites often seem to disappear into the internet void.

2. Refresh your marketing skills and experience

Once you’ve decided what sort of role you want, identify any gaps in your skills and experience and try to fill them. Do some voluntary work or take a course to update your knowledge, if you have the time and budget. Although I had a long break, for the last few years before resuming my career I had been doing a lot of voluntary work and a part-time admin job, so while some of my marketing knowledge needed updating, most of my skills were all current.

3. Demonstrate how your skills match the role's requirements

The application process nowadays is very different to the last time I was job hunting. Rather than sending off a CV, you’re more likely to be filling out an (online) application form showing how you fulfil the ‘skills specification’. I quickly learnt it’s vital to give details demonstrating you have every skill required if you want to get an interview. To this end, I built up a handy bank of examples following the STAR format (Situation, Task, Action, Result) for each of my key skills.

4. Sign up with an recruitment agency for advice

Not only should this mean some good roles come your way, it will also help you to get a feel for the current job market. Agencies will also give you guidance on interview techniques. I had never heard of core competency-based interview questions before I started job hunting, and my first encounter with these abstract questions – "give an example of how you’ve improved processes for the benefit of customers" – somewhat threw me! But signing up with an agency was very useful for gaining insights into the current format of interviews. And do make sure you’re on LinkedIn as it will seem unprofessional if you’re not, plus it’s used a lot by recruiters.

5. Ask for advice 

Don’t be too proud to take advice from anywhere you can get it: recruitment consultants, friends and family in the industry - even from people who haven’t offered you a job! That may sound odd, but one of the best pieces of advice I received came from an interviewer who didn’t hire me, so always say yes to feedback if it’s offered. I was told that during the interview I should have linked my skills more to those required for the role and given relevant examples. I had comprehensively done both these things in my application (which is presumably why I was shortlisted), so thought it unnecessary to repeat myself in the interview. I didn’t make that mistake again.

6. Be confident in your abilities and don’t undersell yourself

Resuming a career after you’ve been out of work for a while can be daunting, but remind yourself of all your successes: you will have loads of skills and experience. I was quite surprised when I read through my old CV, as I’d forgotten how much I’d done!

7. Use your network

By network I mean everyone you know - friends, family and old work contacts. Job hunting can be a lonely process, but your network can provide much-needed moral and practical support - and maybe even job opportunities. When I got in touch with my former boss to ask him to be my referee, he immediately suggested an interesting vacancy he’d just heard about. On another occasion, a chat with an old friend in a senior marketing position turned into an inspiring pep talk, which really boosted my confidence and left me brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

8. Stay positive and don't give up!

This tip may be clichéd but it’s also true. Any job hunt - but especially returning to work after a long break - is a challenge. It will involve some soul-searching, hopes will be raised then dashed, but it really is worth it. You will need to be resilient, but treat each experience as a learning opportunity - and don’t give up!

To summarise...

Consider what you are looking for, what will suit your abilities and lifestyle (and be realistic!), and ensure you make use of those around you. Whether they're old friends currently working in the industry or professionals in agencies, any advice will stand you in good stead. Above all, be resilient. I hope that these tips give you a head start with your job search. Just imagine where you could be a year from now!

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