A practical guide to finding work after children

by Kirsten Lees

Wondering where to start when considering going back to work?  Here is a practical guide to returning to work after children: Finding the right job opportunity and what the experts say.

Here is the advice most careers advisors will give to people who are looking for work.

  1. Exploit your network, eighty per cent of jobs come through your own professional network – who you know really matters.
  2. Go direct – choose a company that you would love to work for and give them a call. Find out if they are hiring. Let them know about you.
  3. Approach the employment agencies.
  4. As a last resort, look at the job classifieds.

Here is how that sounds to someone who has taken a couple of years or more out to raise children.

  1. My network? I have been out of the system so long, everyone I used to know has moved on - or died.
  2. Approach the companies? What me? Call Macquarie Bank/Channel 7/Hamilton Island Resorts and just let them know I am available? Nah – they’d laugh at me. What would I say? I bet they wouldn’t even return my call.
  3. Try an employment agency? That doesn’t work. They don’t want people like me. They never advertise part-time work, and they don’t understand my skills. They keep putting me up for admin work.
  4. The job pages? Ah, that’s where I feel comfortable, browsing the job pages with a coffee on a Saturday morning, mentally applying for all kinds of exciting opportunities, searching online databases of tens of thousands of jobs in exotic locations receiving emailed updates of positions tailored to my skills, and experience. But no, I don’t usually send in my resume.

How does a stay-at-home m um get on the phone and make the employers of Australia sit up and listen? How do you reinvigorate your professional network when it predates electronic organisers or even Filofaxes? And when the last time you looked, your ‘network’ was a couple of phone numbers scribbled on the back of an envelope, blurred by coffee rings.

If, like me, you are inclined to focus on the ads and the agencies when you look for work and avoid calling companies cold, or asking around friends and relatives for help and contacts, it looks like you will have to rethink your strategy.

Networking: what is stopping you?

I don’t like asking favours from friends.

That is what friends are for. If a friend of yours needed help - a twenty minute chat about your pet subject, or the phone number of an old schoolmate who happens to be chair of a major television network – you would expect them to come out and ask, wouldn’t you? That is what makes you friends. And if you couldn’t help, you would find someone who could. Favours are the fabric of friendship. If you do favours for them, your friends will expect the opportunity to return those favours from time to time. Let them!

I don’t like asking favours from strangers.

What strangers? There are no strangers, just friends of friends (and maybe friends of friends of friends).

I don’t like making calls to people I don’t know.

Hmm, this is not my strong point either, in fact, I spend most of my time engineering excuses to avoid making calls to people I don’t know. But it has to be done – and it is not usually as painful as you think it is going to be. Prepare carefully. Let the person know who you are and how you got in touch with them. Be really clear about what you want from the call – it will be easier for them to help you if they understand what you want. Make yourself relax, and make yourself smile while you are talking – they won’t see it, but they’ll hear it.

I don’t think anyone I know will be useful.

Suppose you want to be an astronaut but don’t have any links with either NASA. What do you do? Give up and go into real estate? I should think not. You don’t know who you know, or how useful they may be until you start getting the word out that you need some help.

I don’t know where to start.

Successful networking is about having a plan and being organised. And the plan is the best place to start. List everyone you know, and everyone that they know. Pauline Charleston’s book Tapping the hidden job market has some great advice on how to give the list some shape, and your campaign some structure.

Treat your networking project like a campaign.

Give yourself a schedule with realistic goals, such as the number of people to contact each week (two meaningful conversations is superb progress, and better than 20 superficial, unprepared chats). Keep good records of where you are at: who you have talked to and what advice and further contacts they have given you. Follow up with a thankyou - and let people know when you have landed your job. They will feel good about having helped you on your way, and of course, you may be in a position to help them in the future.

I’ve called everyone I know, now I am stuck.

Go back to your list, think it through again. Who did you miss out? Who did you call but couldn’t get in touch with the first time around? Who have you spoken to once that may be able to speak to you again now have a clearer picture of what you are aiming ?

I feel really uncomfortable at formal networking events

The best advice is to take a friend. Standing at a Christmas cocktail party on your own, waiting for someone to come up and find you fascinating is hard work. Arrange to go with someone – even if they don’t have a direct interest they can come along as a favour and you can do the same for them some time – but avoid the temptation of only talking to the person you came with.

Cold calling

Cold calling be a very successful strategy. In fact an on-the-spot survey of twenty-five women found eight had found work at different times in their careers by calling companies cold. One was still working for the same company thirty years later, another had moved from New Zealand to Australia on the basis of a job offer she received from a company she had called cold. Of course not every call will land you a job, but if know what you are after and you target your companies carefully it’s a sound strategy.

The mechanics of cold calling

  1. Make a list of companies you would like to work for, and work through it in reverse order. That way by the time you are calling companies you are really keen on, you will have had some practice.
  2. Do some research. Know why you are interested in that company and what you have to offer them. What are their business goals, what particular issues might they be facing at the moment, and how might be able to help?
  3. Write a short script – who you are and why you’re calling. Practise it.
  4. Do something that makes you feel up when you are making your call. If you feel up, you’ll sound positive. (One woman did all her cold calling on a pair of rollerskates skating around in her living room. ‘I felt ridiculous, but it really worked’.
  5. Try and talk to the person who will be making the hiring decisions, not the assistant. Call just outside of office hours – before 9, after 5 or during lunchtime to try and catch the person you would like to talk to. Do not leave messages.
  6. Know what you want from the call, ideally an interview of course but a referral is useful too.


Making the most of the classified ads, online or in the paper

  1. Look in specialised newspapers, industry journals etc for advertised positions rather the one-size-fits-all weekend paper or the 50000-job-database website.
  2. Ask yourself, are you really interested in applying for this job? Does it fit your criteria for the ‘right opportunity’, or is it just that it is there.
  3. Work on your resume to show why you stand out as a candidate among the hundreds of others who have clicked the ‘apply’ button. Technology has made the process extremely efficient but thought, preparation and care are still vital.
  4. If working locally is an important criteria for your ‘right opportunity’ look for jobs advertised in the local paper.
  5. Make sure your resume reflects the kind of terms that might be used in a keyword search by the recruiter. More and more job applications get stored first and searched later, and don’t go through a human filter for interpretation and selection.


The job agencies

  1. Register with them, but have realistic expectations of what they can offer. Remember they work for the employer, not for the job candidate. Let them know who you are and what you excel in, and what you are looking for, but don’t expect them to take your details and start phoning around on your behalf. What is in it for them?
  2. Wherever you can, get in to see a recruitment consultant, talk to them and get feedback on the market and on how they feel your resume may or may not resonate with employers.
  3. Don’t ignore the niche agencies. They have often built their business on a few very close relationships with employers and know them inside out. If those employers are in your target group, getting close to the agent could be an effective way of finding your way in. But don’t expect them to do the legwork for you.

Kirsten Lees is the author of Let go of my leg! A practical guide to work after children published by Hardie Grant Books, May 2005.