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When to go back to work
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett

About a year ago, I started a monthly book club with seven other women. We come together the third Thursday of each month for dinner, dessert and discussion.

We’ve read some fascinating books. But invariably, we leave the authors behind and start talking about careers.

You see, with two exceptions, we all chose to quit full-time work and stay home with our children. But now that our kids are in grade school and we’re in our 40s, we’re starting to question that decision.

Why? Well, we know that eventually, we’ll have to go back. Some of our husbands are nearing retirement, and we’re going to have to provide benefits. Some of us blasted through our savings by giving up two incomes, and we need to replenish. Some of us need to fortify college accounts. And some of us just want to reconnect with the careers we left.

But here’s our fear: Can we reenter the workforce once we hit 50? Will anyone hire us, or are we going to be – dare I say it? – too old?

Don’t let anyone sweet talk you. Age in the workplace does matter.

“It can and it does make a difference in hiring decisions, regardless of what they say,” says Patricia Berg, CEO of Minnesota-based CPI Professional Edge, a career consulting firm to corporations.

Indeed, this is an issue women grapple with across the age spectrum. “It is very much on the minds of women who are beginning their careers and now they want to take time off to have children,” says Jill Miller, president and CEO of Women Work!, the Washington-based national network for women’s employment. “We have not gotten to the point where there is not a cost, and sometimes there’s a very big cost to women who take the time off.”

Still, there’s a big difference between someone in her early 30s looking to leave the workforce for the first time and someone firmly planted in middle age who is looking to return. While some professions – writing, the arts, teaching – are a bit more flexible and forgiving as to when we can reenter them, it’s best to enter others (think technology) sooner rather than later, Berg says. Likewise, small- to medium-size companies may be more open to hiring someone in her late 40s to 50s than larger corporations.

But here’s the good news. Even if you came from a highly technical field and dream of returning to the Fortune 100 fold, you can. As Tory Johnson, founder and CEO of Women For Hire in New York, says: “It’s never too late.”

The key, say she and others, is what you’ve been doing with yourself since you stopped working in an office and how you translate your non-corporate skills and experiences to the workaday world.

To wit:

  • Have you maintained professional memberships? asks Miller. Have you kept up-to-date with the trends and news in your field? Have you kept up your network of contacts?
  • Have you volunteered for projects that showcase your skills and expertise? asks Berg.
  • Do you know how to translate what you’ve been doing for the past five to 10 years into language an employer will understand and embrace? Because “you’ve been doing something everyday,” Johnson says.

And even if you’ve let everything go while tending to your family, you can reconnect. Get training, Miller says. Get an internship. Look at temporary placement firms as a way to demonstrate your skills. Check out resources, like those offered by the Women Work! Career Center (www.womenwork.org/career/careercenter/Home/Home.htm).

Most of all, build that network, Johnson says. Join your industry’s associations. Attend events that interest you, and talk to the people there. Tap your alma mater to see what career services it offers through its alumni network. Use every group at your disposal as a possible job lead.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as tapping into the parents of her kids’ friends,” Johnson says of the older woman who wants to return to work. “Anybody at any stage can begin networking. Even if they’ve never done it before.”

Most of all, watch that chip on your shoulder – especially once you begin lining up interviews. Johnson says she sees women all the time who expect rejection because of their age or who are beaten down by not getting the first few jobs they want.

“A lot of times it’s a lack of confidence and sense of intimidation that leads us to feel this way,” she says.

It’s also the fear that prospective employers will look at us and say, “Gee, if I hire you at 50, you’ll want to retire in another 10 years. Why bother?”

That’s a fear Johnson dismisses.

“Just because a company hires a younger worker doesn’t mean that person is going to stay there their entire careers,” she says. Older women need to stress their loyalty to a company, their desire for longevity, and the fact that – to them, at least – job-hopping is unappealing. Even if we work for a company five to 10 years, “that’s potentially longer than they will get from the 20-something they would hire.”

I wish there was a magic formula my friends and I could access to tell us the exact time we should return to work full-time. But there’s not. All we can do is assess our needs and the needs of our families, Berg says; keep connected and informed; and know the value we bring.

“It’s a reality that it’s harder for somebody who’s older. It just is,” Johnson says. “And yet, ‘challenge’ doesn’t mean ‘impossibility.’ It’s all about working harder and smarter and exuding greater confidence than perhaps would come naturally to you.”

Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today, USATODAY.com, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.



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