Taking a leave of absence from your job leaves a mark on your career, but you can determine the depth of the impact by how you handle yourself during the time you're gone, and by how you return.
We talked with Dr. Margaret New, executive career coach and founder of The Middleburg Group, on keeping yourself marketable during your absence and finding a great new job upon your return.
-> For marketers considering a leave of absence
Consider how long you plan to be gone. "You can be out of the work force for five years but no more," New says. "It's very difficult to get back in."
To make it easier, New suggests the following tips:
1. Maintain your memberships and your network
Keeping a membership in your professional association helps you stay up-to-date with the industry and shows future employers that you didn't lose interest simply because you weren't working full time.
You should also continue to speak with the people in your current network, or find people in the industry you want to enter. Don't let them move on without you.
2. Keep your skills rust-free
"You know how fast skills go rusty," New says. "Think of the computer. Six months and if you don't know the latest…."
Your professional association and network of colleagues will help you to know how the needs of your industry are changing. Find out what you need to know, and learn it.
And practice, New says: "If you're a writer, keep doing freelance work, write Op-Ed pieces, write letters to the editor. Check those skills out and make sure when you go in for the interview you're on top and can do everything."
3. Return to school
More employers are demanding Master's degrees, says New. "Twenty years from now, a Master's degree will be what an undergrad degree is now." If you already have an advanced degree, consider something completely different to prime yourself for a whole new avenue of work.
If you're not interested in a change of direction, at least take a class or two to expand your vistas. "Say you've got your skills and they're current, but if you started taking Spanish class, that would broaden you."
-> For marketers reentering the workforce
First things first: Once you're psychologically ready to return to work, make sure your resume is in order.
"If you were home raising children, it's too folksy to put 'home engineer' or something like that. But don't leave it blank," New advises. "What they're looking for is that you haven't become a vegetable, you haven't been in prison, you haven't been mentally ill."
Acceptable gap-fillers include: -looking for opportunities for advancement -volunteering or community work -getting an advanced degree -consulting -freelancing -starting your own business
Note: If you started your own business but couldn't make it work, be honest about that, says New.
"You're going to have to say, 'I tried it, I found out how difficult it is to make ends meet or I didn't like working alone or I wasn't good at selling my own product,' or whatever the reason," she says.
-> Where the jobs are and how to get them
Marketing jobs are often the first to be cut, New surmises. So, while that may give you an excuse for why you've been out of work, it also means there are fewer marketing jobs to be had.
New offered 3 ways to get around that roadblock.
1. Try job-sharing
New tells of a Director of Marketing Research for a Fortune 100 company who had been laid off. "He was able to cobble together two or three companies who could not afford the level that he was at, but could afford a third or a quarter of his salary," she says.
Because the companies were not competitors, they were willing to cooperatively share him. "He did not want to be a freelancer or consultant, so they agreed upon a joint employment kind of thing."
How did he make it happen? He had a wide array of contacts through his old job, so he knew where the business was, and was able to sell his services knowing companies couldn't afford a full time person but needed what he could offer.
Also, New explains, companies are afraid to bring on employees in a time like this when the economy remains uncertain. "If you're willing to work on a contract basis for one or two years, it's easier for companies to agree to that than forever employment," she says.
2. Consider a lower-level job
Don't think of it as a step backwards but rather a chance to freshen up and get back into the current swing of thinking. Then you can use that deputy position to leverage yourself in a year or so into the job you want.
"Be prepared that you may have to take less, then show your stuff and be promoted," New explains.
3. Sell your skills in new ways
If you were in marketing, sales, or PR, how can you take those skills into another position if all the marketing/pr/sales jobs are gone?
Those are all people jobs, "so either you have great research skills or great people skills," says New. "These are great skills to do other things."
Two specific places for marketers with people skills to look for work:
o Trade associations Every industry has a trade association, and every association needs a membership coordinator and someone to coordinate conferences.
"That's second nature to (a marketing person)," says New.
o Higher education Any industry that needs to sell itself to the public and hasn't yet been downsized needs good PR.
"In the US, higher education is still in growth mode," New says. "All over the world, having a degree from a US college is good, kids from all over the world want to come here. So the colleges need to have good marketing-oriented people in their admissions offices."
It's all about selling your skills. "They pay you for your skills, they fire you for your lack of skills," New says. "You have to creatively convince them how your skills are going to feed what they need to have done. If you've done your homework, you know what they're looking for."
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