Comeback career! 12 smart job-searching tactics from those who got hired during the last economic downturn

It can feel daunting to look for a job after taking a career break, especially in this economic climate. But it can be done. Here’s what successful relaunchers did in 2008. Their tips and tricks can work for you too.
Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch and Mika Brzezinski, Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host.
Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch and Mika Brzezinski, Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host.Miller Hawkins

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By Carol Fishman Cohen

If you’re currently searching for a job after an extended career break, you’re facing a double whammy. Not only are you in the middle of an economic downturn, but you may feel professionally disconnected after taking time off for eldercare, childcare or other reasons.

The good news is, you can take a page from the 2008 recession playbook and learn how those similarly situated at that time were able to get hired. We at iRelaunch know, because we were there. Having weathered the last recession, we studied and tracked these "recession relaunch success stories." Here are the tips and tricks that can work for you now:

1. They got specific.

Successful relaunchers identified their distinct skillsets and figured out exactly what they were looking for. They did a “surgical strike” when applying for jobs, targeting only the ones that matched their skillsets and goals.

Even if they felt desperate, they resisted the temptation to bombard the employer with applications for many roles. Today, employer-recruiting platforms can detect when people apply for 30 different jobs on their sites and can reject them on that basis without looking at their background further.

2. They became subject matter experts in their disciplines.

Successful relaunchers typically have an “always-learning” mindset. They looked at old course materials, took new courses and certificate programs, got recommendations from old colleagues on the top experts in their fields and read those experts' books, articles and websites.

Podcasts weren’t a thing back in 2008, but if they were, we know they would have been listening. They read articles in professional journals that talked about current issues in their field, in addition to controversies and new products. They made sure they were conversant in all of those topics.

3. They got certified (or re-certified).

If they had let certifications lapse, they got re-certified. Or they got certified for the first time in their chosen field. For example, a manufacturing engineer who had taken an 11-year career break and wanted to relaunch as a quality engineer saw that every job posting she was interested in required Lean or Six Sigma certification. She had to invest financially and time-wise in this certification before she could apply for the roles. But it paid off.

4. They didn’t get hung up on their title.

They focused on getting their foot in the door, even if it was for a lower title and level than where they were before their career break. Take a look at this Harvard Business Review article for examples of relaunchers who left senior roles when they went on career break, returned to work in roles junior to those they left, and rose through the ranks once they got back on the job.

5. They researched the employer like crazy.

Relaunchers who knew a lot about their prospective employer felt more confident going into interviews. They distinguished themselves from other candidates by making references to specific news or information about the employer, underscoring their interest and enthusiasm about the employer's mission, product or service, or industry.

Here’s a great 3,2,1 iRelaunch podcast on how to research employers, including ideas we bet you never thought about. And listen to this one, to learn about the “10k” idea.

6. They practiced their answers out loud – over and over again.

Relaunchers crafted scripts of anecdotes about their past work experiences and why they were qualified for the role, and spoke these words out loud. You can't just think it. You must say it. In today’s Zoom culture, we advise practicing doing a video interview with friends who hire people, or on video interview practice websites.

7. They went public with their job search and ignored the naysayers.

You must ignore your critics and the larger negative economic “macro picture.” Someone might tell you, “Oh isn’t everyone looking for a job these days? Good luck with that.” Our successful relaunchers put aside these comments and plowed ahead.

8. They didn’t job search alone.

They formed squads of like-minded relaunchers and went about the process together. They met regularly, kept each other accountable and moving forward, supported each other when they got discouraged, and were great sounding boards on everything from checking typos on resumes and LinkedIn profiles to conducting mock interviews.

9. They were relentless (but not obnoxious!) about the follow-up.

Successful relaunchers weren’t afraid to go the extra mile. They went on LinkedIn to find who they might know at the company, or asked their contacts if they knew someone there, so that person could personally deliver their resume to the hiring manager.

We would also advise finding the job they applied for on LinkedIn and putting in a LinkedIn invitation to the recruiter who posted it. Once interviewed, they checked in with the recruiter and contacts they met during the recruiting process in a regular, but measured way. They did not repeatedly ping them, which would have crossed the line to being obnoxious.

10. They knew delays were NOT ABOUT THEM.

They reminded themselves that “radio-silence” was not a referendum on their worth as a person or their qualifications. They tried to put themselves in the recruiter’s position. They understood recruiters were under pressure too, often getting urgent, conflicting directives from their employer in terms of hiring strategy and which skillsets the employer was targeting during an uncertain time.

11. They were patient and realistic

They recognized that job searches in an economic downturn can take longer. Also they realized they may not get their dream job at their dream company in this environment.

They thought realistically about how they could broaden their search to more potential roles and employers where they could add the most value. At the same time, they knew they only needed one job. Even when companies were laying off and the economic forecasts were dire, they could still find open roles at those same companies and elsewhere.

Here’s a 2020 example at hercjobs.org – an aggregator of job opportunities at academic institutions. Right now, there are nearly 30,000 jobs posted. But how old are these postings? Answer: Over 300 jobs were posted a day in the last few days we checked. And this is in a sector where we are hearing about hiring freezes, campuses not opening in the fall and general disruption. So make sure you are looking at recent postings, and don’t make any assumptions about who is hiring and who isn’t until you check for yourself.

12. They didn’t give up.

One relauncher got to the final round of interviews TWICE, with two different employers, in very involved processes that required presentations, multiple panel interviews and testing. She finally got a great job on the third try, but it was a long haul. She hung in there.

Another relauncher got an immediate “no” from a company she actually worked for before her career break – a boilerplate rejection straight from their automated software. She couldn’t believe it. The role called for an unusual mix of qualifications and she was convinced she was exceptionally well-suited for it, career break or no career break. She went hunting around for former colleagues who were still there and finally connected with one of them, explaining the situation. He hand-carried her resume to the hiring manager who ultimately hired her.

Carol Fishman Cohen is the Chair and Co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch,which works with over 100 global employers to build and expand their in-house return to work programs, and engages with a community of 80,000 "relaunchers." Her TED talk "How to get back to work after a career break” has over three million views and has been translated into 30 languages. She is the author of the Harvard Business Review Magazine article “The 40-Year-Old Intern” and writes regularly for HBR and other publications on career reentry topics.