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 having no references keeps me unemployed. I am competing with the unemployed, the underemployed, other housewives coming back to the workforce, kids out of college, kids in college, kids in high-school, the immigrant workforce, 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 any 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 can also teach you how to network and they provide emotional support when you are discouraged about your job search in general. In the Seattle area, face-to-face career counseling is available at the Center for Career Connections at Bellevue Community College and the Centerpoint Institute for Life and Career Renewal. Many career consultants and coaches (like me) who are located outside of Seattle also work with Seattle clients via telephone or email.

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 of doing this are 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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