Returning to Work After a 24-Year Gap

By Cathy Goodwin

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Returning To Work After A 24-Year Gap

Today's WSJ included an article by Sue Shellenbarger, "An Auto Engineer Returns To Work After 24 Years Raising Children." 

As the article says: "After spending 24 years out raising her four children and teaching at a home-schooling co-op, 54-year-old Wendy MacLennan scaled a Mount Everest-like learning curve to make a comeback as an automotive engineer."

Ms. MacLennan did many things right. 

Her husband, also an engineer, helped her revise her resume. She was able to show that her experience of homeschooling her children would qualify her for a job and make her a good employee. 

She did some networking. She ultimately found her job through the husband of a friend at her local church. 

That's not at all unusual. I'm not encouraging you to get religion if you don't have it already. But I've worked with clients who found good networking opportunities in churches and synagogues.

Once on the job, she quickly made allies. Her colleagues helped bring her up to speed on new screen-sharing software. She brought in cookies and children's toys for younger colleagues.

Ms. MacLennan could have done a few things to make the transition easier. For example:

(1) Today you learn almost anything online, for free or for a low cost. Check out Coursera, EdX, and The Great Courses. Ms. McLennan could have signed up for a refresher course in engineering or software.

(2) Ms. MacLennan had to learn screen sharing and meeting software. You can practice with meeting software free or at a low cost. Sign up for a month with one of the main services and just practice. Zoom.us, AnyMeeting.com, and GoToWebinar all offer options. And you'll find many free YouTube videos on these services. 

(3) Ms. MacLennan was incredibly lucky. Her team and her colleagues were incredibly supportive. A few months after joining her company, the article suggests, she became discouraged and asked her boss, "Do I really belong here?"

I advise my clients not to share their own insecurities on the job, whether with colleagues or bosses. However, it is always a judgment call. Ms. MacLennan worked in a midwestern small town, where norms of workplace behavior might be different from a larger city. Her workplace sounds remarkably shark-free. 

Like most midlife career-changers, Ms. MacLennan didn't hire a coach or consultant. Clearly she didn't need one. Unlike most career-changers, she was fortunate to have a husband who was able to give her useful guidance. He knew her field and apparently knew just what was needed to help her.

A coach might have been helpful as a confidante for her self-doubts and might have suggested some of the tips I'm presenting here...or even more. 

Overall, Ms. MacLennan's experience shows that it's not a big deal when an older worker joins a team, if the environment is supportive. She learned from whoever had the skills she needed. She eventually found her own niche based on her expertise. 

Her story wouldn't make a movie like The Intern, but it's far more realistic. She does have a happy ending: after pitching in during her boss's absence, she gained credibility and won Employee of the Month, with a cash award and nice publicity.

If you'd like to explore working with me on your own transition, please visit this link.  

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