Looking for a job can be a daunting task for anyone, but it's especially scary for many adults who haven't worked outside their homes in years. They worry about lacking the latest skills, competing against candidates with current experience and learning the politics of interviewing.
If this sounds like you, rest assured you're not alone. The silver lining is that a looming labor shortage and low unemployment means that many employers are more willing to look at nontraditional candidates. That, coupled with several key steps on your part, could help you hear "You're hired."
Assess your skills. Just because you haven't been paid for your work, doesn't mean you've been sitting around doing nothing all day. Chances are you've been responsible for cooking, cleaning, shopping, raising kids, volunteering -- in essence, making the trains run on time. Break down those skills and put them on a functional resume, one that focuses on your skills and abilities, not a chronological resume that focuses on work history. Did you run bake sales? Then you know about organizing volunteers, promoting events and selling.
Take catch-up courses. Once you know where the obvious gaps are, figure out how you'll fill them. If you're looking to work in an office, but you don't know how to type or you've never used Microsoft Word or Excel, take a class. You can check with your state's unemployment office, displaced homemakers' programs at community colleges or with a local YMCA for free or inexpensive courses.
If you worked previously in an industry that you want to get back into, now is the time to brush up on the trends, leading employers and key players in that field. Join professional associations and women's groups, and look at Web sites and trade journals too. This helps you to talk the talk knowledgeably, and it can let you in on not only what's happening but also who's hiring.
Focus on confidence, not criticism. Attitude is even more important than skills. I interview women all the time who've been through a divorce, and within the first few minutes I inevitably hear, "I wouldn't be in this situation if that jerk hadn't left me high and dry." And while I can certainly appreciate that, no employer wants to hear that you're bringing bitterness and baggage to the workplace. It's also a turnoff to show any sense of financial desperation. Instead of focusing on the negative reasons as to why you're returning to work, tell me the positive. "After a few years at home devoted to my family, I'm now ready to recommit myself to my career."
Celebrate ... have a networking party. Yes, have a party. This is hard-core networking disguised as fun. You don't need anything fancy or expensive; it could be a Saturday afternoon of cocoa and cookies. Since people are your best source of job leads, invite friends, family, neighbors -- reach out to the parents of your kid's friends, the people you go to church with. Instead of asking them to bring a dish like they would do for a potluck, ask them to bring an idea, connection, resource or job lead. Ask them to cheer you on as you embark on this exciting new journey. Make it fun so everyone wants to rally around and support your efforts. Nobody likes a pity party, but they certainly like rooting for someone who's facing a challenge with great gusto and determination. And since these people know you and your character, and like you and trust you, they'd be a big help in making introductions and even serving as references.
Be realistic about money. Maybe you really want $35,000, but you're only offered positions that pay $30,000, so you turn them down flat. Then months and months go by and you're still not making a penny. But if you had taken the job -- even at the lower salary -- there's a good chance that you'd be on your way to a promotion. Or at the very least, during that time, you wouldn't have accumulated more debt.
Obviously, you want to negotiate for as much as possible, but even if the opportunity isn't exactly what you want, think about how you might be able to use it as a stepping stone to something better, especially while you're building current work history. Just because you take one job doesn't mean you must be wedded to it forever.
Keep an eye on your skills and affiliations. We buy life insurance not because we think we're going to die tomorrow, but because we want to secure our financial future in the event of the unthinkable. The same theory applies to married women who don't work outside their homes. I would never say, "Hurry, get a job because your husband will eventually leave you." That's a terrible message. But I would say what all the divorced women I interviewed told me: In retrospect, they wish they had kept their hand in something professional -- even if it wasn't full-time. Consider attending a monthly meeting in your industry, reading trade papers, having an occasional lunch with a former colleague, and taking on freelance or part-time projects to maintain somewhat-current experience.
Tory Johnson is the CEO of Women For Hire and the Workplace Contributor for "Good Morning America."