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Women: Rock your return to work after a career break!

Tips to plan your professional — and financial — comeback


IF YOU’VE HIT PAUSE ON YOUR JOB, you’re hardly alone. More than 40% of women working today take at least a year off — that’s nearly twice the number of men who do, says the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.1 They may opt out to stay home during their children’s early years, or take a break to care for an aging parent; others may leave work as a result of illness or job loss. And the pandemic only accelerated this trend. In the year after March 2020, women lost nearly 4 million jobs, compared to 3 million lost by men.2 As of January 2021, male employment had nearly recovered, while more than a million women were still out of work compared with pre-pandemic levels.


But past history indicates that many women who take a break, whether voluntary or involuntary, eventually try to get their careers back on track. Take heart from this fact: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women over 55 are the fastest growing age and gender workforce category.3 It’s not just job satisfaction they’re seeking. The financial impact of a career break can be significant. A woman who takes just a three-year break can leave more than half a million dollars on the table, including forfeited wages, retirement benefits and lower Social Security earnings.4

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When you’re ready to dive back into the workforce, whether your break was a few months, years or decades, “a comeback career can play a large role in shoring up your financial security,” says Jen Auerbach-Rodriguez, head of Strategic Growth Markets at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Use the tips below to start your job search — and after you’re hired, consult with a financial advisor to create a plan that can help you make the most of your salary and benefits to boost your retirement savings.


Picture the job you want. “Be honest with yourself about what kind of work you want to do now,” says Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, a career reentry firm that works with employers to build return-to-work programs hiring career relaunchers. That could mean a totally different career, especially if your former one is no longer compatible with your lifestyle or your interests have moved in another direction.

“A comeback career can play a large role in shoring up your financial security.” 

—Jen Auerbach-Rodriguez, head of Strategic Growth Markets, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management


This is a good time to reflect on your career trajectory so far and consider what’s most important to you. Start by making a list of your job “musts” and then see how that aligns with the jobs you’ve been searching for. After a career break, you may feel that doing something you love is more important than earning a higher paycheck, but you’ll want to consider how that will affect your day-to-day life.


On the other hand, if you find that a larger paycheck is at the top of your “musts” list, you’ll want to factor that into your job search early on. Ask your financial advisor to calculate how new work-related expenses will impact your budget (will you need to pay for child care?), and to run the numbers on the effect of a longer break, if it takes you a while to find the right fit.


Have a family meeting. Sit down with your family members to discuss what type of job would work best for your situation. Is a flexible schedule important for you? Do you need to be home a few days a week if your children have a hybrid schedule? You may not want to worry your family members about any concerns you may have about your return to the workforce, but keeping an open line of communication is key. “Parents and children should be part of regular family meetings about how life will change for the whole family when you go back to work,” says Cohen.


The beginning of a job search is also a good time to have an honest conversation with your spouse, and financial advisor, about your household budget. If you’re only considering full-time work, you may be surprised to discover that a part-time job is a better fit for your particular scenario, or vice versa. “Post-pandemic, fewer roles are location-specific and many remain permanently remote, creating flexibility around how and when the work gets done,” says Cohen.


Refresh your network. Most jobs are landed through people you know, which amplifies the importance of keeping an active network, according to Cohen. Reach out to former colleagues via online social platforms, then offer to “meet up” for a virtual coffee chat. Also, get involved in professional groups online so that you can connect with working professionals in your industry to learn about where the opportunities are and find out what may have changed in the industry. Look for virtual networking events in your field. Many professional organizations are adapting trade shows, conferences and in-person happy hours into structured virtual sessions online.

“Have regular family meetings about how life will change for the whole family when you go back to work.”

—Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of career reentry firm iRelaunch


Remember, too, that your network doesn’t end with your professional contacts. Think about everywhere you’re involved outside of the workplace, whether that’s community groups, your alumni chapter or charitable organizations. And don’t forget junior people who have likely moved up the ladder while you’ve been on your career break, adds Cohen. After taking an 11-year career break herself, she initially returned to a company run by someone who'd been junior to her when they'd worked together before.


Practice your personal ‘elevator pitch.’ Feeling out of practice and a little unsure of your skills is common among relaunchers, says Auerbach-Rodriguez. “Possibly the hardest part of this is the emotional journey of the transition.” Consider working with a career coach, who is able to offer targeted insights on reentering the workforce. You’ll also want to schedule a virtual meeting with a job recruiter, who will be able to shed invaluable insight on the job market and can help you present yourself in the best light. Think of this meeting as an informational interview. Besides learning about opportunities, this conversation will get you in the habit of putting on your professional game face and talking about what you can bring to the job.


Finally, spend some time crafting your message so that you’re specific about what you’re looking for. Employers will want to see that you’ve done your research on the company and can explain in detail how you’ll fit into their organization going forward. Be honest about the reasons for your career break, both on your resume and in interviews, and don’t sell yourself short. Share your passions and past career accomplishments and show that you’ve kept up with developments in your field.


“Companies are aware of the value of career relaunchers. Some companies now offer ‘returnships’ specifically aimed at attracting them.”

—Jen Auerbach-Rodriguez, head of Strategic Growth Markets, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management


Look at ‘returnships.’ Auerbach-Rodriguez notes that “companies are aware of the value of career re-launchers. Some companies now offer ‘returnships’ specifically aimed at attracting them.” Like paid internships, but reimagined for the mid-career professional, these programs offer training, mentorship and a built-in support network. And they often lead to job offers at the sponsoring company. Cohen’s iRelaunch holds return-to-work conferences “to bring together hundreds of professionals interested in resuming their careers and employers that want to hire them,” says Cohen. Virtual job fairs are another great way to explore different opportunities. Many organizations will publish a list of companies ahead of time so that you’re able to research them and make a new connection. Another tip: See if your alma mater maintains a job board or offers job counseling for alumni.


Be realistic. Most importantly, have patience. Millions of Americans are searching for jobs, so standing out in the job market is key to getting an interview. If you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, you may not immediately find a job that matches your former title and/or salary. Talk with friends and do some research to find out what the going rates are in your profession. And don’t hesitate to negotiate your first offer. You also can negotiate to sweeten the deal once you’ve had a chance to prove yourself, perhaps by requesting a performance bonus or salary review six months in. Beyond your paycheck, your financial advisor can help you evaluate the total financial package of a job offer, including stock options, bonuses, 401(k) match and other benefits.


Supercharge your savings. Once you start a new job, make sure to take full advantage of any tax-advantaged retirement plan your employer offers, and consider auto-escalation, which will gradually increase your contribution every year. Then schedule regular check-ins with your advisor. In addition to helping you plan your retirement catch-up strategy, your financial advisor can suggest ways to help you prepare for health care costs and other priorities you’ll have — years from now, when you’re ready to retire.

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1“Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Slowly Narrowing Gender Wage Gap,” Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2018.


2 Author’s calculations based on “Current Employment Statistics, Table B-5 and Table B-1, Series Codes: CES0000000010, CES0000000001,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed Feb. 2022.


“Number of people 75 and older in the labor force is expected to grow 96.5 percent by 2030,” November 2021; and “Labor Force Projections to 2024,” Dec. 2015; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


“The Hidden Cost of a Failing Child Care System,” Center for American Progress, accessed Feb. 2022.


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