In her excellent TEDx talk on returning from long career breaks, Carol Cohen calls those coming back to the workplace after a long break away ‘relaunchers'.
Carol is pretty much the leading authority on this topic - she returned to a high flying corporate career after 11 years out of the game, and now runs a consultancy helping people to return to work in later stages of their careers.
Many folks take career breaks for different reasons, hoping to come back at a later date. The idea of career relaunching might make potential new recruits unattractive at first glance. But does a big gap on their CV really mean they're unsuitable to hire?
Evidence suggests that's not the case - career breakers can be fantastic assets to any company. Looking to make some new hires soon? Maybe you should consider a relauncher.
Why do people take career breaks?
First of all, why do people take long breaks away from work anyway?
Workations don’t really count - they’re when employees go away to a nice holiday destination, but work remotely (a great idea, but only in certain circumstances).
Sabbaticals are a type of career break, but they’re generally undertaken with the understanding that they go back to the same company, in the same job (or a similar role). They’re also usually undertaken with a specific goal in mind, such as training, getting some volunteer experience, travelling, or dealing with a health issue. Sabbaticals generally last between 3 - 12 months.
Career breaks are less well-defined. These are when employees stop working completely with no particular plans to return. They might be for a number of reasons: spending more time with children, taking care of ill or elderly relatives, redundancy, or taking time out to focus on career advancement.
There's also simply life circumstances. Life has a habit of throwing unexpected challenges at us that we simply have to prioritise by stepping away from work.
The advantages of hiring career break returners
If you’re a business owner, you might think hiring returning folk isn’t a good idea. What if their skills are a bit rusty? What if the industry has moved on since they left all that time ago?
It turns out those fears are unfounded. Returning after a career break can have a number of advantages for workers and your company.
If someone's taken a break to be with their children, they’re likely to come back with a settled family life, and be less likely to need further parental leave.
They'll have both work experience and life experience; a more mature perspective alongside the wisdom of seniority will be an asset to any business. They’ll also have a hunger to work after taking a long time off, meaning more energy, dedication and focus. Relaunchers can make for a fresh change from burnt-out careerists who jump ship every two years for a bigger pay packet.
And by the time a job interview opportunity comes around, any potential returner worth their salt will have been reading up on industry news for months to get back in the game.
What about being technologically obsolete? It’s really rather unlikely. Even though your company has moved on from Windows 98, your relauncher won't have avoided computers for their entire time away. Many technical skills are like riding a bicycle - they might take a little time to air out the cobwebs, but the fundamental ability never goes away. Nobody forgets how to double-click a desktop icon.
For more specific skills, like using new software or programming in a new language, training will be needed, but the cost of this might be worth it if you've otherwise found the perfect employee.
The 40-year-old intern
Would you be open to hiring someone after a career break? We’d hope so.
You could look at running a re-entry programme or returnship - a short-term paid project, a bit like an internship, designed for those that need to update their skills and ease back into the workforce. Carol Cohen talks about a wide range of big corporates that have tried these programmes to great success, even in non-traditional re-entry career paths like engineering or finance.
In fact, she recommends proactive relaunchers to seek out companies that don’t have a formal re-entry programme, and ask them to try it out. It might be a great idea if the company needs some support in a particularly busy period.
Interestingly, the above methods should apply to career transitioners, too - those staying in the workforce but changing to a different industry or job type. For those lucky enough to afford a financial cushion while they change careers, experimenting with short internship programs can be a great way to see how they like their new work before fully making the jump.
So the tide's turning as business culture reexamines what it means to have a career. It's rare for anyone to stick with the same employer for 40 years, and flexible or unusual career paths are becoming the norm. Career breaks should be seen as a pretty normal fact of modern business life.
There are recruitment companies who recognise this untapped pool of talent, like The Return Hub, who place returners in financial services companies. There's also advice available from professional networks such as Women Returners. And for HR professionals who'd like to learn more, we'd recommend a read of People Management's great article: Career breaks can work for everyone - if HR plays its part.