Re-Entering the Work Force - How Traumatic is it Really?

20 December 2016

I was recently talking to a very good client of ours over coffee when he mentioned that his wife, a degree'd professional in a former life, was ready to re-enter the workforce after many years at home. I was intrigued with his thoughts about what she might do, and also the view that he had of her capability (Lots, she won't have any trouble) and what she felt about her own skills (Are they still relevant? Will I cope?).  We discussed whether organisations like ours are the right answer for people who have been out of the workforce for a long time, perhaps using services like our temporary staffing roles to ease them into full-time roles while allowing them to build some confidence and get new skills.  These people are almost overwhelmingly women, and some of them, like our client's wife, have missed a large chunk of the technology revolution that has taken place in many jobs over the last decade or so.

This led, as these discussions sometimes do, to the impact that children have on women and their careers. Before moving on though I think it's wise to put some cards on the table.  We were two guys over a coffee. Many readers may decide, What do they know? or It's easy for men, they leave all the hard stuff to women anyway or You can't have a conversation about what its really like unless you have been in the same situation.   To which I can only say that we can and do talk about these things and both of us have personal experience in supporting spouses leaving and re-entering the workforce.

A large percentage of our Alpha workforce are women. We see them as young women at the start of their careers, many newly graduated, and  not always totally sure what they want to do. We understand that they will almost surely move on, sometimes to other opportunities, or overseas, and often to begin their families.  Possibly the biggest change I have noticed in the last 15 years is that today's young women aren't usually away for long, and many are motivated to keep their careers moving, possibly with reduced hours to start with, so more of them coming back to us after only six months or a year off.

However we also see women, like my client's wife, who have been out of the workforce for a long time, most for more than 15 years, and they are the focus of this discussion.  We will address some of the more recent changes in work patterns and career development for today's mum's another time.

These women are typically older than 48, they have been mostly at home with a full-time job as mothers, and they are have seeking a re-entry point to the workforce for many reasons.  They may be looking for part-time or temporary work, or seeking their first permanent role after a period away from the workforce. They have skills but some may no longer be relevant (does anyone fax anymore?).  They are understandably nervous about what awaits them.

Surprisingly there is not a lot of research out there about why older women return to the workforce, especially in New Zealand, and we have had to look at some of the overseas research from Canada, Australia, the UK and the US.  It becomes pretty apparent that, for most women, economic factors are still the main reason. However there are others, such as the children now being old enough to get themselves to school or Uni and back without any more of those crushing school-run drives, a renewed sense that the career is not yet over but it might be soon if it's not restarted, and pressure from peers and partners. 

There are also some quite startling cultural differences in articles addressing this issue.

As an example Google directed me to this article on Forbes in the US.  It uses phrases such as The "Opt-Out" Mothers to describe women who left the work-force in their early 40's, stayed at home for approximately 15 years and are now facing difficulties re-entering the workface in the mid to late 50's.

The most interesting part of this article was the discussion on how hard these women, and some men who also "opted-out", are finding it to re-enter the workforce.  In typical US fashion there is also the ubiquitous list of 7 on what to do about it which I won't repeat here.

I haven't heard the term "Opt-Out" used so much in New Zealand, and I couldn't see the same emphasis on it in the UK and Australia, except in the broader sense of workforce participation.  Here is a thought provoking article on participation rates in Australia which show pretty clearly that this opting out starts earlier in Australia than in the US, possibly as early as the late 20's to mid thirties, and indicates pretty clearly that this is because they are having their children.

The article veers off into a broader discussion on sexual discrimination, which is indicated as the main reason for the resultant lack of workforce participation during/following pregnancy but that is (yet another) topic for another day.  It seems that Australian example is similar in some respects to New Zealand in that there is a difference with workforce participation rates between Australian men (86%) and women (67%) in the crucial 25-34 age group, however our New Zealand women are participating at a much higher rate than the Aussies as you will see from this information:

This indicates that our women in the comparable 24 - 35 year age group are participating at over 72%. More are working through their child raising years, either full-time or in flexible arrangements, with the participation rate rising to over 81% for the 49 - 59 age range.

It seems that we don't have an enormous percentage of our NZ women opting out and coming back to the work-force in their late 40's, early 50's.   Which may mean that those that have been out of the workforce for more than 15 years have even more hurdles to re-entry because there isn't a large cohort moving through similar experiences with them. These barriers are not just technology driven, they are found in the attitudes that employers have to investing in older staff, versus those with little work experience behind them but many more years of potential work. There are psychological barriers for stay at home mums who, as in the wife of my friend, aren't sure that they would cope with the modern workplace and its tasks, and there are all the practical issues with restating the boundaries and division of tasks with older children and their partners. None of these are trivial and the experience is unlikely to go smoothly and fast.

We recommend anyone in this position look for role in an organisation, or enrol with a recruitment company, that has clearly articulated how it works with a diverse workforce. There are also public resources available that give information to assist with the transition.  One of the best I have found is Career NZ which has some good advice that can be found here:

Traumatic?  Yes probably for some, and certainly not easy for anyone who is returning to the workforce after an extended period out.  But there is support available, and we have met and helped lots of women who are enjoying being back in the workforce, so it's worth the effort if this is something you'd like to do.


Comment is welcome on the experiences you have had returning to the workforce after time away to have your children, and why returning was important to you.


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  • Lise Povey 4 years ago

    Thank you so much for this valuable and insightful information.Having and Building the confidence within oneself, to ask,search, seek employment after taking care of loved ones, years of being away can destroy the inner soul. I'm grateful for the strong supports I have and assistance out there. I'm 50+ and enjoying life, not just surviving or existing in it !!!!

  • Di 4 years ago

    I agree - the best advice you give is for any person returning to the work force to contact a recruiter. In my experience the most important thing a RTW'er requires is confidence and finding a consultant who will be your biggest advocate is paramount. A good recruiter will be empathetic and identify the transferable skills.

    Employers employ candidates with a 'can do' attitude so working with a recruiter who sees your positive attitude as much as your potential will help open doors that may otherwise be closed.

    One of the best ways I would recommend to gain confidence and up skill on the job is to go 'temping '. This is a practical option and can help gain confidence, gain experience and gain the confidence of an employer.

    Over the many years I was involved in recruitment, I saw hundreds of temps get offered jobs that they would never have made the shortlist, but because they impressed the employer as a temp, they got offered the role.