How To Re-Enter The Workforce After A Long Absence

Dear Dr. Civitelli,
I am a 37 year old housewife with a BSBA in Management. I haven’t worked in the past 10 years, and my work experience before that is in a different country, as a cashier. Even though I have a degree, my lack of experience, and no references keeps me unemployed. I am competing with the unemployed, the underemployed, other housewives coming back to the work force, kids out of college, kids in college, kids in high-school, immigrant work force, etc.
What should I do? Nobody calls me back, and I have applied mainly to entry-level jobs. What are my chances of getting a job with possibility of advancement?

Frustrated in Seattle

Relaunch Career

Dear Frustrated in Seattle,
First, I recommend that you stop thinking about the competition because it sounds like doing so is making you anxious! If you have been sending a resume to employers who don’t know you, I can see why it feels like all those other people are seeking the same thing as you and it is tough to differentiate yourself, so here is what I would do to stand out from the crowd:

1. First, choose a focus. Job hunting without a focus is ten times more difficult and 1/10 as effective. Think about your natural strengths, interests, values, and personality. In your life, what skills have people noticed and given you compliments about? These tend to be things that feel so effortless to you, you take them for granted and think everyone can do them, but in reality, we are all good at different things.

What work-related activities most appeal to you? Organization? Customer service? Writing? Research? Persuading people? Analysis? Working with numbers? Something else? A career counselor can help you to figure this out if you don’t already know, plus career counselors are also fabulous for teaching you how to network and they provide emotional support when you are discouraged about job search in general. One affordable option is the Center for Career Connections at Bellevue Community College. Services are open to the community for a low fee.

2. Second, get involved with professionally oriented activities that allow you to become acquainted with people who can serve as references for you and who will say that you are brilliant at whatever focus you identified above. This can be volunteer work with non-profits or temporary jobs, both of which are easier to land than full-time jobs with advancement potential. Think of these activities as an investment in your future as they aren’t the final destination. In addition to building your network, these are also resume-building activities that can dramatically change how your resume looks in just a few months. To find volunteer positions, you can use a site like or just contact Seattle nonprofit organizations directly.

3. While you are involved in resume building activities, you may need a survivor job to pay the bills. This can be anything and doesn’t even have to go on your resume, but one strategy that has worked for a lot of people is to find something that involves a lot of interaction with the public. The reason this can be good is that you never know which random conversation can lead to a job offer, in which case all the other resume building activities can be quickly wrapped up so that you are free to take the new job.

4. In my experience, fun social activities are just as likely to result in making connections that lead to job offers as are professionally focused activities. This means if you’d rather spend a lot of time learning a new sport or hobby or going to book clubs or anything else that appeals to you, you wouldn’t be wasting your time. Just be your most pleasant self and keep the emphasis on developing relationships naturally…after you have made some friends, you can tell them that you are job hunting and ask them to please keep you in mind for job openings that fit with the focus you identified as your career target.

5. Try to find a professional association that represents the people in your chosen career field. I am constantly impressed by how much easier it is for job hunters to network their way into a new job when their efforts are concentrated within a specific profession. You’ll find many of the networking events and groups in Seattle are listed at If networking and small talk are not your strong suit, don’t stress too much about how to do this…just go and be an observer and learn about the field. If you regularly go to the same group’s activities, you will eventually be regarded as an insider, especially if you offer to help with something by volunteering for a leadership position.

6. If the career focus you choose is something that lends itself more easily to finding customers/clients than an employer, consider launching a service-oriented business. The advantages to doing this is that you can begin to bring in revenue fairly quickly and many service-businesses have very low start up costs. Customers/clients don’t care about your resume or job history…they are only concerned with whether you can help them with specific problems or concerns. If you choose to start a service-oriented business, you can offer your services at a deeply discounted or pro bono fee for the first three clients with the understanding that if you do a good job, they will serve as references for future prospective customers/clients. For home-based business ideas, Paul and Sarah Edwards are authors who offer a lot of expertise. Here is my review of their book about home-based businesses.

7. Read success stories of people who returned to the workplace after an absence. Try to find examples of people in your career field so you can copy the strategies that worked well for others who were in similar situations as you.

8. If nothing seems to be working, get professional assistance through a private career coach, a nonprofit or government-sponsored career counseling agency, library job search classes, or church-based career counseling.

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  1. Without job references, one cannot apply for most jobs because the corporations are using online automated job applications that require references, and they all want to talk with former employers. I know that I will never have another job because of this process. Bankruptcy and an impoverished old age are the only legacy left to me.

  2. Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli says:

    Mark, you are focusing on the tough part of job search without the benefit of knowing people who re-entered the job market after a long absence. Since I’m a career counselor, I know lots of people who have successfully found a job or launched a business after years outside the paid labor force. The first person you have to convince, though, is you. If you are completely sure you can’t find a job, you probably won’t take the actions that will lead to results. Career counseling can help. If you are in Houston as your email address implies, perhaps check into the free career counseling resources I list on this page:

  3. Thanks, I’m not in the Houston area, I live in the vaste wasteland called rural America, where prosperity reaches about 2 months before the next national recession begins, and that are too remote to have large employers. They’re like satellite towns with satellite workplaces. I do work on this problem daily, but again I say one finds few corporate online applications that do not require employment references to complete, and ‘self-employed’ is viewed as badly as leaving them blank. And almost all employers now require experience in a similar position, unless one is able to enter at a level suitable for an 18 year old, if they’ll hire you, and work your way up. I have a non-professional degree (essentially 3-4 minors) that did not deliver tangible job skills, and then some retraining, but neither matters to employers nowadays. I realize now poor credentials, lack of experience, and location have dogged my entire working life, and it is too late to change anything. Tweaking up self-employment is all that’s left, and that income is 4 figures. I doubt I’m the only instance of being in such a predicament.

  4. Dr. Janet Scarborough Civitelli says:

    Mark, you are correct that you aren’t the only one experiencing the predicament of a triple challenge with poor credentials, lack of experience, and tough location. I don’t believe it is too late to make things better, though. More and more companies are offering telecommuting and that can be one way to overcome the challenge of a rural setting with few jobs. Self-employment doesn’t have to mean 4 figures, either. If you send me information about your location, I’ll investigate whether I know of any local resources to assist you.

  5. I like most of the article, but wince when I read the part about the “survivor job”. I’m not saying that it’s necessarily incorrect, but it can be highly dangerous, if you don’t set very clear boundaries for yourself. If you’re flat broke, you have to do what ya have to do. But I have also need no shortage of over-qualified workers who haven taken a “survivor job,” telling themselves it would just be a couple of months. A couple of months becomes a year, and before you know it, this survivor job is a permanent thing. The other day I was driving past a Kroger store with a friend of mine who is in a similar situation. I pointed to the store. “I know for a fact that there are people in that store with master’s degrees working as cashiers”. Grant it, they dropped the ball. They got lazy about the job search after a while, but they also have the problem that most employers nowadays want every last hour they can get out of their employees, even if it’s just a minimum wage job. A lot of these people found themselves short-changed on time to go to professional meetings, network, or attend an interview. So, one must be vigilant that the “survivor job” doesn’t become the graveyard for a thriving career.

  6. Mark-2, I agree with you. Note that the entire sentence was, “While you are involved in resume building activities, you may need a survivor job to pay the bills.” If the survivor job makes it impossible to do anything else to build a career or business, then the first career goal should be to find a better survivor job.

  7. Not much has changed here. I still don’t have references, or at least the only two I have are personal: a distant relative (frowned upon even if disguised) and a support group leader. Employment references are temp agencies, most of them out of business, from the 1980s. One company from the 1990s moved and changed their name, and I haven’t been able to find them. I enrolled in an online training course, but have to pass a professional test to qualify, and did not pass on the first attempt. A volunteer application, a way to rebuild references, has requested – can you guess – three references. Online application highlighting self-employment to local retailers through a popular quick-fill job site did not yield any replies. Survivor job? I’d welcome the opportunity if anyone would interview me. Business has come to believe that the long-term unemployed are not employable. One would be better off with a newly issued green card.

  8. Mark, some organizations might ask for references before you can volunteer for them but there are other organizations or individuals who aren’t so structured and organized that they would even think to ask. I wouldn’t use closed down businesses from the 1980s as a reference…I think it would be better to learn a skill that you can offer for free to acquaintances, neighbors, friends, etc. in exchange for their agreement that if you do a good job, they will serve as a current reference. I don’t know your strengths but go with whatever they are and if the job can be done virtually, that’s even better since you said options are limited in the rural area where you live.

  9. Kary Kelsoe says:

    Great article! I am a stay at home dad that has recently decided to rejoin the workforce, and this entry of yours is full of more practical advice than most of the other cookie cutter articles I have read. The “Focus” step, and it’s specific points, definitely help to put this gigantic mission that I’m now on into perspective. Thanks again.

  10. I have taken on a couple survivor jobs since my office job, and now I have too much retail in my resume. Employers and recruiters think that is all I can do, even though I have two bachelor of science degrees. It’s like my degrees don’t even exist. I’ve tried volunteering too, and that was even more of a waste of time. I need some real advice here. I now have a baby to support. As for fun social activities, I tried and went to some group that talked about art. Yeah, that is not realistic to develop relationships there all so you can tell them you are looking for a job. Plus you need money for social activities. This world sucks. I am so fed up!

  11. Karen C., I added #7 and #8 after I read your comment.

  12. Dr. Civitelli,
    I did a Google search and your article came up. After spending the last 25 years as a stay at home mom I am looking for a job. I do not have a college degree. The jobs I held way back when were customer service oriented. I decided to try applying for a concierge job at a local hotel. I got a call for an interview. Even if it doesn’t turn into a job I think it will be good experience to go through an interview. I need the practice. Your article gave me hope. It is super scary to need a job at this time in my life with a young child. I admire all the people that posted. Everybody’s situation is different. I really liked your focus part. We have three really big hotels where I live. And I decided to start with those. I am a rookie so this could all turn out to be what some of the other posters experienced. Thank you for the article.

  13. Julie F., I hope your interview goes well! It is smart to think of interviews as practice because if you learn a bit each time, your skill and confidence will increase and you will either land this job or another one.

  14. I am a 50 year old woman that feels very insecure no confidence due to the fact that I have been out of work for one year. I see a receptionist position I was a receptionist about 30 years ago. My resume shows that I worked as a receptionist for 5 years which was in 1990 . I have 3 jobs on my resume and the first job is a receptionist. does anybody know how I could write a cover letter to show that I could still be a receptionist

  15. Hi Donna A —

    As a professional resume writer and career strategist, Janet asked me to tap in on this question.

    The best “quick” advice I can give is, use the job postings as a guide to the message you’re trying to convey. Too often job seekers craft career documents and correspondence in a “vacuum,” writing the resume and then reading job postings. Hiring authorities tell you what they want to know in their postings. Start crafting the message from the opposite end of the search and it will drive much more productive results. Read the postings, ascertain target (audience) needs, then use that focus to determine strategy, content, presentation, and spin.

    There are strategies and methods to attach skills from earlier positions to potential employer needs and overcome employment gaps. But the focus has to be on how what you did connects to what that next employer needs — in both the resume and the cover letter.

    Today’s job market demands that career sales and marketing documents convey the features and benefits of JobSeeker, Inc.’s (Or in your case, “Donna, Inc.’s”) most important products: time, talent, energy, expertise, and knowledge. If a resume isn’t laser-sharp focused toward the role sought, a cover letter won’t add much to the conversation. Developing that laser-sharp message for the resume produces a natural segue into writing a powerful cover letter, too.

    To further expand on why it’s important to have powerful resume, I’ll share a little more insight:
    Generally speaking, cover letters follow a rule of thirds meaning, one-third of the hiring authority / decision maker recipients read the document in the order intended, cover letter first, then the resume. One third, read the resume first, if it sparks interest, they’ll read the cover letter. (That’s what I did when I was an executive recruiter.) And one-third don’t read them at all. As you can see, putting a great deal of stock in a document that only has a 33.3% chance of being read in the order intended is not the best place to convey you CAN DO the position today. That message has to ring loudly through the resume, and be shored up by cover letter content.

    Side note: Unless otherwise instructed, always include a cover letter (and follow-up with a thank letter after the interview). You don’t know which third is on the receiving end of your submission, provide a complete package, and let the reader choose.

  16. I am a 61 year old woman, who has been out of the workplace for 11 years after being let go of a contract job with EPA in 2004, I have done volunteer work since being out and worked part time being a temporary caregiver for a relative with MS this past summer, assisted with an elderly relative in the past, I have a resume which needs updating, the gaps in employment concern me, I am presently looking into taking classes to update computer skills and better myself. I am interested in part-time employment at the moment but wonder if I’m still employable. I have worked in the administrative healthcare field in a hospital back in the 90’s. I have read the article about career counseling, which would I have considered and even doing volunteer work. Have even considered a class where u can learn how to do your own business. I have H.S diploma and college but no degree and I know there are positions out there that don’t require degrees like some in customer service and receptionist which I used to do as well. Just looking for some pertinent information and advice on my particular situation at this time.

  17. Shelley Richard says:

    Hi Allison,

    As a career counselor and coach, Dr. Civitelli asked that I weigh in on your inquiry.

    First of all, do not listen to anyone (yourself included) who may tell you that you are unemployable. It is so important to keep a positive attitude and surround yourself with personal cheerleaders who will support you through this process so that you stay motivated and encouraged.

    As mentioned in the article above, I would first advise you to do some self assessment of your interests, skills and values to help you focus your job search. You have experience in healthcare and care giving, but do you enjoy those areas? Is a job where you are helping others something that you value? If so, one possibility is to focus on receptionist positions, for example, in a clinic or healthcare setting. While you obviously would not be providing direct care to patients, by having shared values with your employer, you will likely feel more engaged and satisfied than if you were working the same job in say, a construction office. The O*NET Interest Profiler is a free online tool that will assess your interests and relate them to careers you can then explore. You can assess your values using a values checklist like the one created by Dr. Civitelli.

    As you explore, you may find you have skill gaps that you will need to determine how to fill and whether or not they are worth the effort and time to fill. You mentioned that you may start classes to improve your technology skills, which is a great idea and demonstrates a desire for continued learning, which employers love to see. Your local library is a great resource for these types of classes, as well as local community colleges, workforce centers, churches and community education such as Leisure Learning. Many times these places also offer workshops related to job searching (resume writing, interviewing, etc.), as well as job clubs which provide excellent resources and support. They may even be able to assist you as you put together a new resume, targeted to the types of jobs you have decided to pursue. Another great side effect of these classes is that as your competence level increases, so does your confidence!

    When reviewing the success stories of people who reentered the workforce after an absence, a theme is that volunteering and networking are frequently mentioned in many of the stories as “key job search factors.” Volunteering is a great way to grow your skills and your network, as well as build your confidence. Consider volunteering for an organization related to the type of work you would like to do, or any organization where you feel connected to their mission. As Dr. Civitelli mentioned, is a great resource to find opportunities, or search local nonprofits, schools, hospitals and churches. You may not have realized it, but through your past experiences with volunteering and care giving, you developed skills valuable to employers. Working independently as a caregiver and alongside others as a volunteer, you no doubt improved your skills related to teamwork, communication, and problem solving, not to mention demonstrating your work ethic. Continue to develop these skills and others through volunteer work while pursuing paid employment.

    I cannot stress enough the importance of networking in your search. Because you have gaps in your employment, your resume alone will often not be enough to get you an interview. Make a list of everyone you know from friends and family to neighbors to the chatty gentleman at the dry cleaners. Make sure they all know what type of position you are looking for. Ask if they know anyone who works in your target area. If they do, ask if they would put you in contact with them so that you can conduct an informational interview where you gather information, not ask for a job. A referral from someone who thinks fondly of you is much more powerful than one resume in a pile of hundreds or more. Also, employers typically “go shopping” for strong job candidates by asking friends, star employees and people they trust for referrals. You want to be the first person who comes to mind when opportunities arise by making sure your network knows you are searching and what you have to offer.

    Here are a few more useful resources: One of the contributors to the above article is the CEO and founder of Flex Jobs, a site where you can search flexible jobs (part-time, work from home, etc.) in 100+ career categories. There is a $14.95/month usage fee, but all jobs are hand screened for legitimacy and there is a satisfaction guarantee making the fee worth it in my opinion.

    AARP: Although named the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP has a great “Work & Jobs” page on their website with articles and tools related to career and job search. The site also offers a free resource, Life Reimagined, with several useful assessments.

    U.S. Small Business Administration: Since you mentioned that you have thought about starting a business, the US SBA website has many articles and resources worth reviewing, including Thinking About Starting a Business? 20 Questions Before Starting.

    I hope that you find this information useful, and I wish you the best in your search!

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