The Comeback Question

A hot topic today is the challenge of people (mostly women) who have taken sometimes up to 20 years off from a career to re-enter the workforce. As I got ready for work last week, I listened to a conversation about this topic on the TV show, Morning Joe. The co-anchor of the show, Mika Brzezinski, has a new book out, “Comeback Careers.” I found myself perplexed. 

The thing is, I don’t think a person who has taken a break from full-time professional work for significant time should be given equal consideration for jobs as a person who has worked professionally uninterrupted during the same time period. 

The choices we make in our lives come with consequences. The consequence of the choice (the privilege) of choosing to stay home with children, rather than remaining full-time in the workforce, is that the career-end of that person’s life received less attention. Others, who did not have the same privilege, or simply chose not to make that decision, continued to devote full-time hours and full-time attention to the same work the person who took time off is interested in pursuing. If two people are competing for the same job—one of whom worked full-time professionally at the very work he or she is applying to continue doing, while the other person took 10 to 20 years off from professional work—would it be fair to give these two applicants equal consideration?

Caregiving at home, whether for children or the elderly, teaches valuable life skills and emotional intelligence. However, I don’t believe those life skills, as valuable as they are, should be given equal weight as professional skills if it is a professional job the person is applying for. 

People who have taken time off from the workforce should be given a way back in, but it should not be at the expense of those who have not had the luxury and privilege of taking time off. In addition to the rearing of children, many of us would love to take years off to travel or work on pet projects, but are not financially able to do so. If we did have the ability to make that decision, few would argue that we should be given the same consideration for jobs as those who continued slogging to the office every day while we trotted around the world or immersed ourselves in our passion projects. Family caregiving is not a frivolous pursuit, and should be given respect, but to be fair, pursuits such as travel and work toward personal goals also are not frivolous. It’s wrong to make a value judgement that places family caregiving on a higher plane than any other pursuit that takes a person out of the workforce. Just as few employers would give equal preference to a person who had traveled the world for 20 years as they would to a person who worked full-time uninterrupted during those years, neither should equal preference be given to a person who took off 20 years to raise children. Time away from professional, full-time work is time away, and has to be weighed against the value of a person who has NOT taken the same break from daily professional chores (as much as they would have loved to). 

As I listened to the conversation on Morning Joe, I thought about how angry I would be if I applied for a promotion at my company and discovered that a person who hadn’t worked full-time in 20 years had been given the job over me. I could easily believe he or she had become more emotionally intelligent than me during those years, but be that as it may, I would doubt that he or she could do the job as well as I could. 

A compromise would be for companies to have a training program specifically for helping people re-enter the workforce. The fair way to do it would be to count as professional experience the number of years they were in the professional workforce before taking time off, and then search for positions that would be open at the company for a person with that number of professional years of experience. What would not be fair, or conducive to building a competent workforce, I believe, would be to allow them to add the years away from the workforce into the number of years of work they claim to have under their belt. So if a person worked for 10 years, then took 15 years off and wanted to come back, the company would log in its database that the person has 10 years of professional experience, and the jobs available for those with 10 years of experience would be open to him or her. The jobs available for those with 25 years of experience would be open to only those who had worked professionally for all of those 25 years.

Does your company offer a program to help people re-enter the professional workforce? What is the fairest way to do this?


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