Cathy P. was a medical social worker who took a 17-year career break, waiting until her second child entered college before she began the process of returning to work. Still interested in the medical social work field, Cathy started back by working as a volunteer in a hospice. She hadn't been there six months when one of her fellow volunteer workers (let's call her "Sue") took a paid job at another hospice, coordinating the volunteers there. Not wanting to take the position on full time, Sue asked Cathy to job share. Cathy agreed and that's how Cathy first relaunched into paid work.
When Cathy is ready to apply for a full-time job in medical social work, she now has two relevant and current experiences on her resume: her volunteer hospice position and her paid hospice volunteer coordinator position. Plus, in her current position, she comes in contact with visiting medical social workers on a regular basis, and they keep her informed about job openings and the best places to work as a medical social worker.
Sara H. spent five years as a litigator followed by a 17 year career break. When she was contemplating returning, her friend, a law school classmate, was moving to town to start a job at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in the regulatory and compliance area. The friend encouraged Sara to come in as a volunteer and learn more about how that area worked to see if she liked it. She did like it. The volunteer role led to a contract consulting role which ultimately led to her position as Assistant Director of Non-clinical Research.
We call returning professionals in all stages of career break interested in returning to work "relaunchers" and the process "relaunching." Relaunching occurs in a series of smaller steps, often including volunteer work. A relauncher we interviewed early on for our book Back on the Career Track (affiliate link) submitted as a writing sample a press-release she had written as a volunteer for a city ballet company when she applied (and was accepted) for a position as a freelance writer at a newspaper's weekly magazine. A lawyer on career break volunteered to write legal briefs for a state appeals bureau. Her brief writing was excellent, and this skill was in such demand that when she suggested they hire her for a part-time paid position doing the same work, they agreed immediately. There is a wide range of real volunteer roles used by relaunchers as stepping stones during their relaunch.
Another avenue for "strategic volunteering," as we call it, is to volunteer with your professional organization. If your professional organization does not offer programming for people returning from career break, then offer to create it for them. Also offer to organize other professional updating and networking events. This role will enable you to come in contact with employers interested in hiring from the pool of talent on career break and with universities interested in updating this pool.
For example, in order to gain free access to biomedical engineering and scientific research conferences that were price-prohibitive, a relauncher asked if the professional associations hosting the conferences could use a write up of the event that they could publish afterward. Yes they could! She was able to volunteer to do this write-up/summary article for numerous professional events in exchange for being able to attend at no charge.
Also search out volunteer organizations that provide resume-worthy volunteer experiences. Catchafire offers project-based volunteer work opportunities and idealist.org and volunteermatch.org offer role-based volunteer work opportunities.
Be creative in choosing volunteer work where you can help others, and jump start your career relaunch in the process.