I decided to write this post for three reasons:
- I believe iRelaunch is a fantastic service for people who are looking to re-enter the workforce and, equally important, for employers who will gain from what mature women bring to the workplace. I wish it were around when I re-entered in-yes-1980!
- My daughter, who is my greatest champion and supporter, asked if I would share my experience. More than that, to me she is a perfect example of the flexibility, tenacity, positive attitude and resourcefulness you have to muster to make re-entering work. Her example confirms that:
- It is not about who you have been, it is about who you are becoming.
- It is not about whether you are shy or retiring, it is about whether you can take on the persona required to put yourself out there.
- It is definitely not about whether you can do it, it is about how you do it, when you do it, and what you need.
- My transition was not easy. With three children and a husband with a busy high-profile career and many geographic moves, finding my feet was hard. Maybe others can learn from the story I have to tell.
I decided to get a Master's in Social Work when all my girlfriends were going to teachers college after a Bachelor's degree. At the time, teaching was seen as a stop along the way to marriage and as a career which would not interfere with family life and vacations - should you choose to work after marriage. The other common path for women at that time was to get a Master's in Social Work; I had no idea whether or not it was a fit for me, but I knew it was at least not something I would be doing while I "waited to get married." While I was doing my Master's, I felt sorry for the professor in charge of research because he had so few registrants in his classes, so instead of just specializing in casework (ie. counseling) as others did, I added research to my area of focus. It was actually the best decision I made, if for the wrong reasons!
After I graduated with a Master's in 1967 (eons ago), I worked in a large hospital counseling patients and families in oncology and quickly learned it was not a fit for me. I took my work home with me and cried about and worried about my patients all night. This went on until my new husband questioned whether this was a life we were going to live forever...we were just 23 years old! So I called the research professor – he, of course remembered me because there were so few in his classes (and I had bright red hair) -- and asked if there was any work he knew of. That put me on the path of social research and I charted my course for the next three years. I did contract research projects for government and organizations and recognized that I had a talent for organizing facts, asking the right questions, and writing clear and concise reports.
All went well until my daughter was born and we were in a new city with no support network and no money for babysitting. Getting a job was just too complicated. Looking for one was impossible.
Fast forward 10 years, two more children, two more moves, and I found myself a 36-year-old woman with children in school and, while financially I did not need to work, I definitely had a need to be my own person and that meant having my own occupation outside the home.
I had no idea where to start. I had no friends, no former colleagues, no network. I applied for any job at all, even those that were not remotely consistent with my education and background. With each attempt I met a brick wall. Gearing myself up for an interview was terrifying; the only way I got around it was to step outside myself and act like it was not the real me asking for a job. That way it would not hurt so much when I heard that I was “too educated," “too experienced," “had been out of the workforce for too long” (and I knew having young children was not seen as an attribute for a reliable employee).
Eventually, I came to realize was that maybe I was also too threatening to any one who might not want to manage an “older person” or a person with my experience. I needed a chance to prove myself in an area where I knew I was able. So, in desperation I finally called a contact who my husband had suggested many times and who I had discounted many times. I am basically a shy person, so to meet a very senior executive was extremely intimidating. I had been at home for 10 years and after multiple failed attempts my confidence was at an all time low. But, with no other choice but to stay in my house for the rest of my life I asked for a brief meeting to just ask his advice about how I might go about even getting contract work. At this point I was no longer counting on a job with benefits. I knew that the best entry point for me would be just a three- or six-month contract to do a piece of work and prove myself. That did it! In his eyes the risk of taking me on for three months to do a defined piece of work was low, he knew I had the credentials, he did not have to ask one of his managers to hire me or even approve of me, and I was in!
I remember I could hardly believe it. I went right out and bought suitable clothes that I thought would help me be confident in the workplace. That memory is so vivid because my first day I put on a new navy blue skirt and white blouse with pearl buttons (very professional, I thought) and on seeing me my daughter said, “Going to work for the airlines today, mom?”
That three-month contract worked its way to 10 years as a permanent employee in a place where I was able to prove myself and become a senior executive. My career continued for many years after that.
Looking back, a few key things made it possible:
- I had strong understanding and support of a spouse who gave me a contact name and encouraged me (over and over) to move on it until I swallowed what little pride I had left and made the call.
- I understood why I was not being “hired” as a regular employee immediately, and that I had to find an alternative way to re-enter the workforce and that would have to be by looking for contract work, just so that I could prove myself.
- From the start I made it clear that I was willing to do anything, and I learned to act eager, even though it is not in my nature. A little humility accompanied by a sense of humour went a long way. Actually, once I was a manager and later a senior executive I saw even more clearly why I was not easily hired. I learned from my colleagues that their motto is that it is better to hire a young eager person who will follow your lead than an older, more experienced person who might have a mind of his/her own. I wished I knew that when I first started my job hunt.
I was 36 when I reentered the workforce. Today, when women are having children later in life, that sounds young, however, everyone interviewing me was at least 10 years younger than I was and had not left to have a family. I think there is no substitute for maturity and life experience. It puts issues you encounter everyday at work in perspective, and you are better able to handle them than some who have exposed to less than you. I think it is a selling point that I believe my managers came to appreciate in me over time, and that I came to appreciate in people I hired over the years.