Reentry into the Workforce

I was reading a weekly business publication a few days ago. The publication asked 40 up-and-coming professionals under the age of 40 what are the issues to be addressed in their city. Several responses caught my eye: “…recruit and retain young new talent to the area.”

I was not surprised by that statement. I was one of those young professionals that was wooed by the opportunities to work and live in a large metropolis area. That changed when the effects of the last recession landed me on the unemployment line and my health deteriorated.

It has been ten years since that moment . My health has improved to where I can work again. Let me amend that last sentence: “…where I can reenter the workforce.”

What does it feel like to relaunch your career after a long break? Does it feel like you are trying to get up to speed with new technology, trends, and tools? Has the career or job you worked in the past changed or become extinct? Will employers consider you as a candidate after a long hiatus? Do employers consider reentry candidates as “talent” that they are seeking and hope to retain?

In March 2019, I watched a TEDx presentation by Elizabeth Andrew on why companies should hire “reentry” candidates. I also watched Carol Fishman Cohen speak on the value of giving “relaunchers” an internship to show their skills (note: I am aware of the debate between paid internship and unpaid internship. I did an unpaid internship for one year after becoming unemployed).

Career reentry or career relaunch (both terms are interchangeable) candidates are individuals who are reentering the workforce after a period of time away for various reasons such as motherhood, illness, and major life events (death of a family member, divorce, et cetera).

I am a career reentry candidate. I was affected by the recession in 2009, resulting in taking short-term temp assignments (and the unpaid internship mentioned earlier) to stay afloat. The bottom dropped when I was diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease in 2015. I abandoned any pursuit of employment, so I could concentrate on getting well and finding a new kidney. Fast forward to today, I am well enough to resume normal activities. I signed up with a temp service in January of this year, after seven months of finding and applying for jobs on my own without success.

The barriers of not being considered for a job is evident for me and many others: age, race, gender, the gap between work, and experience. I was growing frustrated with the process, but with more maturity now than ten years ago. Andrew’s journey personally resonated with me. I was hiding the emotional and mental scars of being unemployable due to circumstances that were beyond my control. I was enduring feelings of being inadequate while those I knew were moving up the career ladder, being financially stable, and flourishing. I was floundering like a dying fish.

The embarrassment of telling someone that you are looking for work, only for them to give you a sympathetic pat on the shoulder and you never hear from them again (Millennials’ define that as “ghosting”) will make anyone feel bitter and jaded. Could I ask people I know about job openings? I have done that, but usually end up as a dead end when you don’t hear anything from them. I wrote to a few others for advice on returning to work. No replies.

Individuals who are out of work, by choice or not, continue to be viewed negatively by employers and those who are employed.

Bringing in young talent to the workforce sounds great (it should be encouraged everywhere), and at the same time, it dismisses those who were affected by the recession, took time off to start a family, in remission from cancer, or starting over from a divorce. Being unemployed is like wearing a scarlet letter. Everyone knows who you are, but don’t wan’t to associate with you.

Two weeks after watching the videos, I received a temp assignment doing data entry for an automotive company. In my 20’s and 30’s, I felt trapped in performing low-wage data entry work. I wasn’t encouraged to look for better jobs. The longer I was typecast as someone who did data entry, the more discouraged I was. I had other skills that I was very good at, but they were usually dismissed or not needed. Combine that with stuttering and not speaking up for myself, my chances in advancing up the career ladder was dead in the water.

My temp assignment lasted three months. I was told that I did a great job in helping the department get caught up with their cases, but there was no future with catching on with them. That is the risk of doing temp work: there are no guarantees that you will stay there permanently.

There were three things about myself that quelled several myths about reentry/relaunch candidates, as Andrew noted in her talk. The first was I had a renewed appreciation of being at work. Work, for most of us, brings a sense of identity, pride, and purpose. Individuals who have been on the sidelines want to work.

The second was experience. No, not work experience per se, but experience in handling situations in life, whether in or out of the office: handling pressure, how to navigate life situations and applying it to the office. I have more experience at 43 than I did at 23 and 33. Experience in dealing with being mature, learning from mistakes, and evolving with the time and trends. No one can dismiss that.

The third lesson was learning and adapting to a new program or tools. Conventional wisdom says that individuals who return to work are slow in learning new and updated programs and systems. Some employers feel that teaching younger employees on how to do a job is easier than teaching an “old dog new tricks”.

On the first day at my assignment, the supervisor walked me through how they uploaded documents, received by email, into their database. His assumption was that it would take about 2 to 3 weeks for me to understand how to upload documents.

By the 3rd day, I was uploading without any errors and hitting their projected goals that were set for me to achieve.

After watching the Andrew video, my curiosity piqued with question: how many reentry candidates are there in the United States? While researching articles and data, I had more questions than I did answers. When experts mention reentry candidates, they usually refer to women who took a career break for motherhood and retirees. I could not find any data on individuals reentering the workforce after a major health issue like a chronic illness, organ transplants, or various other maladies.

A second question is how many African Americans have reentered the workforce? In a January 2019 Washington Post article by Andrew Van Dam, women and minorities are returning to work in larger numbers, but the disparity and discrimination continue to persist for black applicants seeking employment.

As an black male in my early 40’s, and an organ transplant recipient, I worry on how my time away from the workforce will be received, and my chances in returning to work in relation to race and health. Will employers view me as unemployable, or use the gaps of employment against me, despite my health circumstances?

Career reentry candidates have the skills and the confidence to adapt and understand the evolving workforce. If communities and employers only focus on bringing and retaining young talent, then they are missing out on other groups that are diverse, talented, and valuable to the workforce.

I am not going to wait for someone to “get back to me” on an opportunity. Most of us “relaunchers” are wiser, smarter, and are willing to take risks to get back into the world of work.


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