Get Back Out There: 6 Tips From Career Counselors as Women Return To Work After Pandemic

A woman races from the office home to feed her baby in this illustration meant to depict the balancing act of working mom.
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This past year hasn’t been easy for anyone, but it’s been especially rough for the overwhelming number of women facing job loss and financial instability.

According to a recent workforce analysis by McKinsey & Company, unemployment rates for women peaked in April 2020 at 15.8% (2 percentage points higher than men) and in September when schools reopened, 80% of the 1.1 million people leaving the workforce were women. These trends only continued to get worse, when in December preliminary numbers indicated that women accounted for 100% of the 140,000 reported job losses. (Official federal labor statistics released later listed job losses for women from November to December at 248,000 and 58,000 jobs lost for men.)

6 Tips from Career Counselors

With vaccines rolling out across the country and many schools planning on mostly in-person instruction in the fall, the promise of a somewhat normal existence is just around the corner. For many women, it may be time to dust off that proverbial briefcase.

We spoke to career experts and counselors from all over the country to gather their advice to help women who want to re-enter the workforce. Here’s everything you’ll want to know before dipping your big toe back in the applicant pool.

1. Tap into Your Network

One of the first and most important things to do when re-entering the job market is to tap into your network. This might mean seeing what former co-workers are up to, or even chatting with friends in a similar field. With so many jobs opening up every day, and many hires happening through non-traditional channels (like by word-of-mouth), now’s the time to put yourself out there and let your network know you’re looking.

“Leverage your network to not only discover opportunities in the hidden job-market, but to provide peer-support and spread word-of-mouth,” says author and networking expert Kelly Hoey. “All of this will potentially unlock a wider range of employers for your skills.” You never know what opportunities are out there until you start talking to people, and while that might feel scary, it’s also one of best ways to start your job search.

2. Update Your Resume

Just like tapping into your network, updating your resume is an absolute must before hitting the submit button on job applications. One of the best ways to do this? By starting with the job you want.

“Review the job description of a role you’d like to land, and compare the language in that job description to the descriptive words you’re using in your resume and LinkedIn profile,” suggests Hoey. “Recruiters seeking to fill roles will search on the basis of the skills (aka keywords) they desire, so be sure your headline or title (as well as the “About section”) on LinkedIn includes words relating to your core skills or talents.”

Another way to make sure your resume is up to snuff? By focusing on two key employer-minded questions. “Carve out 45 minutes, grab your favorite pen, and get ready to mark that sucker up,” says Jessica Williams of JMW Career Consulting. “Be honest and open during the process and ask yourself if you are answering these two questions in your resume: Am I demonstrating how I will make my manager’s life easier? and Am I showcasing my best techniques to make money or save money?”

Take some time to review your resume from the eyes of a prospective employer, then rework it to focus on the things hiring managers want most.

3. Strengthen and Flaunt Your Skillset

In the spirit of thinking like your employer, now’s the time to flaunt your most marketable skills — and not just the ones you had pre-COVID. When assessing new skills, think about what you might have learned by working with your children as they switched to online instruction. Are you now an expert in virtual conferencing platforms such as Zoom?

“Adaptability would be a key skill to highlight as you negotiate, because you’re communicating a leadership skill that’s improved over the last year,” says Williams. “Make sure to discuss how you learned new forms of virtual communication as well as your ability to work remotely.”

Besides flaunting all the new skills you have, it’s also a good time to brush up on your existing ones and make them stronger. This might include taking an online class, or even getting involved in a lucrative volunteer project.

“I would encourage those who did not feel able to gain many new skills during the pandemic, to take an online course now,” says career counseling expert Katherine Kirkinis of Wanderlust Careers. “It doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming — just something to be able to talk about. I had a client who took a $20, half-day public speaking course and used it to talk about skills she gained during COVID.”

Volunteer work can also help you brush on your skillset, and works as a great talking point during interviews. “If your visibility in an industry association or business group has been lacking, now’s a really good time to re-engage,” says Williams. “Raise your hand to volunteer or take on a committee role as it will not only help you get up to speed you up on the trends, forecasts and concerns of professionals in your field, but it will also ensure you’re top-of-mind when roles become available.”

4. Know Your Worth

It’s hard to put a price on a job well done, but then again— that’s exactly what a salary is. Just because you took a year or more away from work doesn’t mean you should have to take a major salary cut. But it does mean you’ll have to spend a bit more time getting acquainted with the going rates for your intended position.

“Understand the salary ranges for the roles you’re pursuing,” says Hoey. “Your network or websites such as Glassdoor can help.” No matter what site you use, remember to aim high.

“Research the market on sites like Payscale and grab your happy high-end figure,” says Williams. “Then decide on your ‘satisfied figure’ — the one you’d be more than happy to accept after negotiations. Always shoot for the high-end figure, just because you had time off doesn’t eliminate your skills.”

5. Consider Other Career Paths

If your pre-pandemic career isn’t what you want anymore, or if you were already considering a new career path, get serious about a switch.

“Now is as good of a time as any to consider a career change, especially because so much work will stay remote and/or will be flexible to be remote,” says Kirkinis. “Many industries are struggling right now, but many are thriving. Bio and health tech, streaming services, healthcare, pharma, and remote communication tools are all up. And needs have increased in government agencies and public and private healthcare systems working to provide care. Companies that connect people, promote wellbeing, and provide ways to stay healthy are also prospering.”

If you want to make a career change but aren’t sure what you’d like to do instead, spend some time identifying local workforce needs. “Think about how your life has changed in the past year (how and where you shop for example), as shifts in your behaviors could indicate new industries to explore (ie. cybersecurity, digital privacy, online education) or traditional industries to return to based on pent-up demand  (i.e. retail, travel, sports),” says Hoey.

6. Keep Your Head Up

There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to kill your confidence when it comes to re-entering the job market. The important thing to remember, is that many women are going through the same thing. You won’t be alone in your search or your struggle, and employers will understand the feeling as well as anyone.

“I think employers are looking for candidates who made the best of their pandemic year,” says Kirkinis. “Not everyone was able to do this, and there’s no shame in needing to have taken time for yourself to heal, grieve, etc. Even if this was the worst year in your life — try to spin a positive story that relates to work. Perhaps you learned yoga which has helped you to focus for longer periods of time. Or, spending so much time with your partner made you an excellent communicator and you gained skills in conflict resolution.”

While these might sound like minor things, just the fact that you’re here — and gearing up for your next job is a huge accomplishment. Take the time you need to get prepared mentally for this next phase, but also remember to slow down and be kind to yourself. After all, having a good job is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to financial independence and well-being.

Looking for more proactive ideas to improve your post-pandemic finances? We’ve got a few ideas. 

Contributor Larissa Runkle specializes in finance, real estate and lifestyle topics. She is a regular contributor to The Penny Hoarder.