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5 ways to find meaningful work after a career pause

Many women are unsure how to even begin, especially if they feel their skills are rusty, professional networks are non-existent and confidence is crushed.
Image:  A woman walks on Wall Street in New York on March 21, 2016.
A woman walks on Wall Street in New York on March 21, 2016.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Only 15 percent of workers feel engaged in their jobs, so how do you avoid that fate and instead find a career that's both meaningful and motivating? This can be an especially challenging if you’ve taken a career break to raise children or are looking to transition into another area of expertise.

“Most people react to opportunities, seizing the first one that lands,” warned Diane Flynn, the co-founder of the ReBoot Accel, a company that helps women land jobs and return to the workplace.

Meanwhile, Flynn said “those who are fulfilled at work spend time constantly assessing their values — which change throughout life — as well as their skills and dreams. This takes time, but I am 100 percent certain that this process results in greater happiness at both work and home.”

Flynn would know. Her company has helped more than 1,500 women pivot careers, start businesses or return to the workforce.

But where do you even begin, especially if you feel your skills are rusty, professional networks are non-existent and confidence is crushed?

“I hear all the time: ‘Who would hire me?’ A lot of these women are the women who’ve been running [parent teacher organizations] at school, running auctions, raising money, planning events — all these amazing things that require skills that companies would highly value,” said Flynn. “It is very difficult for women to translate something that they did when they didn’t receive a paycheck into something of value to a company.”

A career break provides the chance to take your skill set and map out the life and professional path you want, she suggested. Flynn called this the “discernment process” or the crucial first step of self-reflection before beginning a job search.

“It’s really easy to slide back into what we were doing in our 20s and 30s. For a lot of our clients that is not what drives them in their second or third career. We help them think outside the box about what drives them and what might be more fun or engaging,” she said.

Here’s what you can do to get in touch with who you are now and where you want to go next.

Figure out your non-negotiables.

“We strongly believe that unless your core values are aligned with your work, you will never find fulfillment. For some those values might be flexibility, some might be financial, some are health care, some are social impact. The values are the non-negotiables that your job has to meet,” said Flynn.

Identify what makes you happy.

“We do exercises around ‘peak experience.’ Reflect back to a time in your life where you lost track of time … Things were fun and engaging. Oftentimes, that was a time when you were young. [For example], when I was young, I lost track of time doing crafts or playing the piano, so might music or creativity be something that should be part of my work life?”

Recognize what energizes or drains you.

“At the end of the day, I write down what drained me or conversely what filled my tank,” said Flynn, adding this exercise helps identify what you want to minimize and maximize as part of your work day.

Create an inventory of your abilities.

What are your strengths and skills right now? “The importance of conducting a ‘strengths’ exercise is to highlight areas in which one excels. When you find a role that maximizes your strengths, you are more likely to succeed, and with less effort,” said Flynn.

“For instance, if your strength is big-picture thinking and the ability to quickly make sense of complexity, you will be highly valued as a strategist or consultant. If you are highly detail-oriented, able to juggle multiple priorities at once and enjoy many moving parts, you may be excellent managing complicated projects or events. Identifying your strengths, and understanding where you might need to up-skill is core to this exercise.”

For women who’ve been in care-giving roles, Flynn said it’s important not to undervalue soft skills you’ve developed over time, like patience, working under pressure and being able to prioritize. These attributes are “immensely valuable to employers,” she said.

Try a ‘visioning exercise.’

“Identify your ideal work environment—who you’re working with, where you’re working, how much time you are spending at work and the impact you want to have,” said Flynn.

Taking the time to do this thinking will help to turn on your career GPS and design your best path forward.