IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

To the 865,000 women who left the workforce last month …

Between August and September, nearly 1.1 million workers ages 20 and over dropped out of the labor force. Of those workers, 865,000 of them were women. Carol Fishman Cohen of iRelaunch, offers her best advice for those considering what to do next.
Image: People Wait In Line To File For Unemployment Benefits In Frankfort, Kentucky
Residents wait in long lines outside the Kentucky Career Center for help with their unemployment claims on June 19, 2020 in Frankfort, Ky.John Sommers II / Getty Images

Dear women who just left the workforce, know there are steps you can take now and in the future to ease your transition back to work when the time is right for you.

I speak from experience; I took a career break in 1990 when my company collapsed while I was on maternity leave with my first child. Not getting any younger, and intending to have more children, I decided not to look for the next big job. Instead, I had three more kids and was home for 11 years before returning to work at an investment firm in 2001. No one was talking about relaunching careers at that time, and I felt isolated and without a game plan.

At my company, iRelaunch (which I co-founded in 2007), we have worked with thousands of women who returned to work after a career break and collaborated closely with over 100 employers to launch and expand their own, in-house return- to-work programs. I know what the landscape looks like from the employer side, in addition to having firsthand experience with the back-to-work transition.

Carol Fishman Cohen is the chair and co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch.Liz Clayman

I also relaunched my career during a recession and worked with “relaunchers” returning to work in the 2008 recession, so I’m deeply familiar with the daunting landscape before us.

The good news is employer return-to-work programs are exploding. In fact, 34 percent of Fortune 50 employers have in-house return to work programs, and most began in the last five years. These programs are growing fastest in finance and technology, two sectors that have thrived during Covid-19. And because the pandemic forced an adaptation to virtual work, employers are increasingly recruiting nationwide as more jobs are no longer location-specific.

So here’s my advice about what to do now, what to do later, and what to keep in mind in the meantime.

What to do now: I’m guessing you do not want to spend your time prepping for a return to the workforce that you just decided to leave. But if you can fit these important steps around supervising “Zoom school” or other current priorities, I promise you will thank yourself later.

1. Document.

While your work experience is still fresh in your mind, sit down and document as much about it as possible, focusing especially on milestone moments, positive or negative. You are writing the script for a future interview when someone says, “tell me about a time at work when…”. Take it from me, it’s much easier to write this down now than to recreate it from memory later.

2. List out your network.

Again, while it’s fresh in your mind, list out your work network – people you admire, bosses, other senior people, peers and even junior employees (who will be moving up while you are on career break and may be in a position to open a door for you later). While you’re at it, include those outside of work because you never know who will connect you with your next job opportunity when you’re ready to return.

3. Use LinkedIn, but don’t let it get too overwhelming.

Make sure you have an updated LinkedIn profile. Use it to post articles and other content, and react to material posted by others.Check your LinkedIn feed a couple of times a week. Periodically send a private message or email to a colleague when you see something meaningful to share. Connect on LinkedIn with as many people from the network lists you made and let them know you left the workforce due to Covid-19 and want to stay connected while you’re out.

4. Keep your certifications and update your skills.

Don’t let certifications and licenses expire. Pay the fees, take the continuing education and find out if there are special provisions for “sabbaticals” or other work hiatuses.

5. Join a community of peers.

Taking career breaks and relaunching can feel isolating. Joining an organized community of peers on career break enables you to stay current on the latest thinking about relaunching and hear about return-to-work programs and available positions, even before you decide to actively relaunch your career. Learn from the return-to-work success of others and archive strategies and advice for later.

What to do later: These are steps to take in the future, when you are closer to getting ready to return to work.

1. Reflect – “was I on the right career path to begin with?”

A career break can be a gift, as it’s often our first opportunity to consider whether we were on the right career path to begin with. We may have fallen into a job at the beginning of our careers, without thinking about whether it was a good match for our talents and interests, and at a time when they weren’t even fully developed yet.

When you’re ready to return to work, you’ll need to decide whether to return to what you left, to something related, or to relaunch in an entirely new direction.

2. Check out your alma mater’s alumni career services.

Career assessment tools, coaching and other resources can be offered free of charge or heavily discounted by colleges to their alumni. Also check out resources at New York Public Library, the Chicago-based Career Transitions Center, the Danville, CA St. Isidore Networking Group (non-denominational), the Jewish Family Service in Dallas (non-denominational) and see our podcasts and other free resources at iRelaunch.

3. Take on volunteer roles in line with your career goals.

Check out idealist.org, volunteermatch.org and catchafire.org for ideas.

4. Enroll in relevant coursework.

This will signal to employers that you are serious about returning. These can be free courses on edX or Coursera, or fee-based certificate programs through universities or professional associations.

5. Go public with your job search.

Tell everyone you know you are ready to return to work.

And keep this in mind:

1. We take longer-than-intended career breaks.

Most people on career break will tell you their career breaks lasted longer than originally intended; “I thought I was only going to be out for a couple of years, and the next thing I knew 10 years had gone by,” or “My original career break was for child care reasons, but then my mother got sick and I found myself in an eldercare situation.”

2. Underestimating lost income from career breaks keeps us home longer.

An excellent tool for calculating the cost of a career break was developed by economist Michael Madowitz at the Center for American Progress. Put in your current salary and different lengths of career breaks and it calculates the all-in costs, including compounding of dollars saved, assumptions about raises, social security benefits and other factors. Listen to my podcast with him here.

3. Erroneous childcare cost calculations keep us home longer.

When at-home parents in two-parent families are deciding if they should return to work, they typically look at the cost of childcare, plus additional costs such as transportation and parking, and weigh those against the incremental income they expect to earn. If this calculation results in a breakeven or negative number, they conclude it’s “not worth it.” This is a misleading approach. Those early “breakeven” years are temporary and an investment in the more profitable years to come, when childcare costs decrease and future income increases.

4. However, dependency on one employer in a downturn can send us back to work sooner.

Those who returned to work earlier than originally intended often did so because their “breadwinning” spouse or partner’s job situation became unstable. Couples vowed not to be dependent on a single employer again.

5. Looming, long-term financial strain also propels us back.

Other relaunchers returned early because they anticipated substantial future financial obligations such as college tuitions, eldercare costs or retirement.

I hope your time at home is fulfilling and gives you the control you want in your life at this chaotic and uncertain juncture. I also hope my advice will give you peace of mind about how and when to approach your return to work – in the timeframe that’s best for you.

My most sincere best wishes and support,

Carol Fishman Cohen

Carol Fishman Cohen is the chair and co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch, which runs the iRelaunch Return to Work Conferences, works with over 100 employers on in-house return to work programs, and leads a community of over 81,000 "relaunchers." Her TED talk "How to get back to work after a career break" has over 3.5 million views. She hosts the 3,2,1 iRelaunch podcast and writes regularly for Harvard Business Review on career reentry topics.