How to Take a Step Back and Still Move Your Career Forward

Woman multitasking at home, working and caregiving
​Getty Images/MoMo Productions

More than one in four women considered leaving the workforce or taking a step back in their careers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to McKinsey’s “Women in the Workplace 2020” study. Meanwhile, analysis from the National Women’s Law Center based on recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports found that while women gained 68.6% of the jobs added to the economy in November 2020, they have still lost 5.3 million jobs since February 2020. In addition, 40% of unemployed women have been out of work for six months or longer.

It’s not a mystery what’s causing this mass exodus. The “second shift” facing working women was hard enough. Add on the additional caregiving responsibilities caused by the pandemic, and something has had to give. For many, that “something” is work that pays.

The problem, of course, is that very few workers who were forced to drop out due to the pandemic can afford to work without making money. Also, people work for many reasons besides the need to earn a living, including self-respect, identity, social connections, and pursuing their potential. Being forced out of the workplace threatens a lot more than a worker’s bank account—although that financial pressure alone can be severe.

If you have pressed pause on your career because of caregiving responsibilities (or any other important reason), you might be feeling plenty stressed out at the moment. In addition to keeping your head above water and your loved ones safe, you may be concerned about what the future holds for your professional life.

The good news is that very few career paths are a straight line. 

If you’ve been forced to take a step back, you can still move forward professionally. Here’s how.

Go Independent

American jobs are famously inhospitable to work-life balance. According to a study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average U.S. worker spends 40% of their day on the job, and 11% toil 50 hours per week or more. As a result, it can be hard to hold down a full-time job and manage other responsibilities like caregiving and online learning.

This is when freelancing, consulting, or part-time remote work can be viable options. Don’t assume that your occupation is incompatible with flexible work. Especially during a recession, companies are often more than willing to take a chance on freelancers who are less expensive than benefited employees and easier to scale up or down when work demands change. Freelancer and crowdsourcing marketplace, in fact, reports a 14% increase in job postings in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year.

Consider jobs outside your usual field, but that use your transferable skills. In particular, if you have experience working remotely or with minimal supervision, emphasize that in your cover letters, resumes, and conversations with hiring managers.

Avoid Scams and Schemes

Even before the pandemic, there were plenty of outright scams to tempt job seekers, especially in the work-from-home space. 

If you’re looking for a remote job, beware of common work-from-home scams and focus your effort on these tried-and-true methods of finding legitimate remote work. 

Scams aren’t the only pitfall facing would-be remote workers. If you’ve received an unusual number of solicitations to sell supplements, essential oils, or beauty products since the pandemic started, you’re not alone. Some multi-level marketing (MLM) companies have leveraged consumers’ health fears and lost income to find new customers.

The problem is that when you become a seller for an MLM, the customer is usually you. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent letters warning multiple companies to remove claims about their products and earning potential. Further, even legitimate operations are usually a waste of money for sellers; the Consumer Awareness Institute has found that 99% of MLM participants lose money.

Keep Learning

Even if you can’t commit to a regular schedule, now may be the perfect time to upgrade your skills. Many online classes offer asynchronous learning, so you can learn on your own time. Learn to code for little to no cost, pick up a newlanguage, or finally master Excel. In addition to improving yourself, you’ll be closing any potential gaps in your resume.

Want to make sure your efforts are heading in the right direction? Create a professional development plan to figure out which skills to target or brush up on your career skills for free.

Don’t forget to give yourself credit for the soft skills you’re developing during your time away from paid work. 

Employers want candidates withcommunication skills,creativity, and the ability toresolve conflicts—in other words, they want you.

Tweak Your Resume to Reflect Your Worth

Your work has value, even if it’s unpaid. When you refresh your resume, be sure to consider all experiences that have sharpened your skills. Did you volunteer during your time outside the workforce? Include it in your resume. Did you take a class, do freelance work, orhone soft skills that are particularly valuable to employers? Show off what you can do.

Remember that you’re not obligated to use a chronological resume format. Another resume type might be a better showcase for your skills. 

Keep in mind that a resume is a sales pitch, not a biography. You’re showing hiring managers how you can help their company achieve its goals, not providing them with a complete work history.

Reach Out for Support

Do you hate asking for help? Part of your problem may be that like many of us, you underestimate the number of people who are willing to help. Embracing vulnerability can help you succeed, strengthen social ties, and provide you with job leads, valuable advice, and fresh ideas about where your career can go next.

So, reach out to your old coworkers, college career services center, and LinkedIn contacts. Career development is, to some extent, a numbers game. The more robust your network, the stronger your professional safety net will be.