Education

Getting back into the IT game after taking some time out


In my last blog, I talked about how some career experts are saying that potential employers may look suspiciously at a person who has worked for the same company for more than five years without signs of skyrocketing upward. According to the experts, that stability might convey that person's lack of initiative.

That may or may not be something to worry about. But what about the other end of the spectrum? What if you're been out of work or away from the IT world for many months or years? What's the best way to present yourself to potential employers?

Taking a break from a career is risky in any case, but probably even more so in IT, a line of work that demands up-to-the-date skills. In an article on monster.com, Jenna Gausman says that techies "who want to return at the same level should take no more than six months off. A break of one or two years means you're going to have to be willing to take a lesser position."

So what do you do to make the long gaps less of a liability? The monster.com article suggests three strategies:

1. Stay in touch with your network. Do this socially, by e-mail, or the occasional phone call, but keep your face and name fresh in your contacts' minds.

2. Maintain and continuously develop your technical skills. Sometimes people leave one skill area to try test the waters in another. But they often find the new career isn't what they'd expected. It's easier to go back if you've taken some time during your experiment to earn an IT cert, or do some small-scale consulting.

3. Demonstrate continued initiative and enthusiasm for the field. Read trade publications and keep up on the latest and the coolest technologies.

Here are some other important strategies suggested in the article:

  • Stay in touch with managers and others who can serve as references.
  • Participate in online groups to network from home.
  • Read trade publications to stay current in your areas of expertise.
  • Get experience by working part-time or volunteering.
  • Prepare to be tested on your skills.
  • Update certifications or other credentials.
  • Consider returning to school, especially if you lack a bachelor's degree.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

12 comments
highlander718
highlander718

with all these "keep, go, stay, participate, get, prepare, update, consider" :-) as "valuable" advises. I keep being amazed by these ultra-obvious hints published as articles ... as I said a few days ago on a simillar thread, most of all - please remember to breathe in order to increase your chance of survival :-)

nyeates1
nyeates1

I am only 27, but with about 4 yrs FT in the field, a prior 7 yrs of IT schooling, and a prior 7 yrs of computer interest and messing, my body and mind are taking a beating. I have RSI-like symptoms (carpal tunnel is one example, although I do not think most people truly have carpal tunnel syndrom, and that it is a misnomer) I have been saving $$ and investing it for about 3 yrs, not knowing what i was saving for. I bought a home 8 months ago with my fiance, so am a little tied down. I am thinking that this money I have saved can be used for up to 12-15 months off work, but I do not think I will want that much time. If I do it, I will do 4-7 months most likely. This article hits home. The above comment makes you also question 'what is the core reason of doing this?' 'Why am I really taking time off?' I am a little dissatisfied with my current job, at a public research univ., it is moving nowhere fast. Dissatisfied with how stuff is ran there, and the way that they are planning on bringing up their ERP as business based on IT. IT should be based on business, as said in a earlier post above. RSI, or whatever these painful muscle and stress symptoms are, are killing me. Lately I have begun to think maybe they are *only* stressed based, as in I can stop them with rest and changing my own thoughts. I am actually on 3 weeks leave right now to rest my typing arms... yeah im typing anyway, just not anywhere near as much. I really hope it is all just in my unconcsious head, as I know I can conquer it if that is so. Last reason I can think of is the stress. The stress of having to keep up with the unending, exponentially growing onslaught that is the IT industry. It brings stress, yet I am somehow magnetized back to it, as you can see my typing on a computer on free time right now. This article basically says to keep up on your tech skills and connections, but maybe to do that, I would not be taking much of a 'break'. Is there a balance in between? Do I keep up only on stuff that interests me? Do I set a certain number of hours I do IT stuff on break? I loved this article, but wished that it had mentioned more about what to tell employers when you come back after your break. Do you tell truth? Truth, plus embellishment? What do you tell them you worked on, and why you had no job for 6 months? Will they be understanding, or not?

gpellett
gpellett

Most of the reports I see and hear now say that the average person spends 12 to 18 months finding a new technical job. Are you sure you can get a new job in 4 to 7 months? Please research the practical job market where you live before you give up your current job. If stress is truly driving you away from your current job or field, it's time to re-evaluate your priorities and do whatever it will take to change to a job that won't stress you out so badly. However, you need to make this as smooth of a transition as possible -- don't just quit your current job one day and hope to start your new job when it is convenient for you. Expect the transition to take several months, if not years. What to tell employers when you try to come back? The truth. Tell them what you've done to prepare to successfully perform the job that you're interviewing for. Don't reveal weaknesses unless directly asked, and then explain how you've overcome those weaknesses so they will not negatively impact your job performance. Interviewers may or may not be understanding, but your task is to convince them that you will be an asset -- not a risk.

TechTamer
TechTamer

If you?re over 40 years old, don't leave that job unless you have another one waiting, or several friends with the resources to help you get a job when you return. A 27 year old will have a better chance of recovering. I changed career direction about two years ago, going from LAN/WAN admin to software technical support. I want to relocate but my current skills set is two years short of desirable and with the two-year break from Networking now I have no way back to the networking side of the house. Keeping my certs updated is not helping me land a job, even though I use the Windows products daily, I keep hearing it is not to the same high level I done previously. Luckily I am still employed. With outsourcing to foreign lands and the state of the economy, walking away from any IT job hoping to get another one is not a good idea. Money is the real bottom line, not skill-set or certifications. Turn your back and your job and it will be shipped to India.

Eii
Eii

Networking and being well-connected to those who can help you get hired is by far the best way to a good career. Keeping technical skills updated can often be prohibitively expensive for anyone who has been out of IT for 1 to 2+ years or even less. This advice is so commonly dished out, yet has not made sense for many, many capable people. It is not uncommon for experienced staff to get shackled supporting older software and hardware "because the younger staff does not know it as well". Layoffs are not uncommon and do occur to the older and to the less-connected but still very capable staff who then are behind in experience with newer software/hardware. And for those who know what it is like to work 50 to 70+ hour weeks keeping up the old stuff without being allowed to self train on newer software and hardware, "keeping up technical skills" is very difficult. Also, expecting everyone to jump to a new job as soon as you find you are not working on the latest/greatest products, is not realistic. Why companies are so complacent about training younger/cheaper staff only to lose them in a year to job hopping and then reinvest in bringing in new hires and again complain that the staff just doesn't have the business/soft skills seems common but shows that poor management is also too common. There appears to be a systemic problem in IT and high tech in general where college aged and younger people are turned off to science / high tech careers because they've seen their parents' careers cut short due to layoffs without a reasonable solution for retraining that is not prohibitively expensive yet sufficient for another company's position. Enterprise servers, software, routers, switches the latest upgrades to such and maintenance contracts can run into 10s of thousands and 6 figure sums in order to work on the products to get the experience that another company expects looking at someone in their 40s, 50s+ and sometimes earlier in their 30s. Expecting so many individuals to pay astronomical sums to "keep up technical skills" in our world today is wrong and will continue to discourage enough youth to enter high tech. Given "less skilled people", companies push for increasing visa numbers or sending jobs and dollars overseas which just increases the problem of discouraging good people from investing in science and high tech careers. There needs to be better, reasonable ways for people to retrain on the expensive products and the new revisions sufficiently enough for good people to obtain new, decent paying jobs even if the jobs do not pay as high as their last job. Companies, in general, have shirked responsibility for helping with retraining as it is "too expensive" yet expect individuals on their own to take a risk and shoulder the expensive retraining. Working on "30 day trials" of expensive software does not typically impress prospective employers (unless the prospective employee is very young).

alan
alan

With all due respect Eli I have to take a different approach. I will say though that you do an excellent job acting as a champion for the masses. Employees do not get shackled into supporting older software. They get shackled into working for the companies that do not upgrade their software and working for managers without the vision to align their company's business with the technology platform they choose to use to support it. Employees do not need reasonably less expensive ways to get the skills to move on. While I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule, I've yet to run in to a technology vendor that does not sell books on whatever they put out; nor have I seen one that does not have trial versions for sales or training reasons. Even Microsoft has an Action Pack. In my experience employees lack the understanding that going to work in a field that changes every three years requires the commitment to change with the field. There's no reason why any employee shouldn't be ready for a promotion or a change of employer every three years in this field. There's no reason why an employee shouldn't be getting at least one certification a year given the availability of the materials and the trial software. Like all things and all fields though there are those that do something and those that talk about doing something. If you take 20 minutes of your lunch hour each day to go through a 100 dollar manual and set yourself a goal of getting that certification six months from now.. you will get it provided you put in the effort. Same goes with a job search provided you're diligent. Those that do, succeed. Those that don't end up in the situation you so eloquently describe. I'm sorry if this comes off as arrogant or obnoxious in any way. I see this argument made often by tons of my peers. Then again, I have a staff that proves it wrong monthly. I may be lucky. Best regards.

Eii
Eii

Alan, much of your approach is familiar. Although your comment suggesting that business align with technology and not vice versa is counter to everything I've been taught and experienced. You must be lucky to hold onto this view and remain in management! Such a view was considered "career limiting" everywhere I've worked. The approach of kicka$$ self training (much more than that wimpy "20 minutes" a day you advocated :) to keep up with interesting, fun and rapidly changing technologies, was something I and many peers pursued, advocated and "benefited" from for many years early in our career. Rigorous self training on-the-job and nights/weekends at school in the early part of one's career is good and necessary to keep up or advance. But I cannot agree that rigorous self training and getting certs are of much value after taking some timeout later in your career or after reaching age 40 or so. In fact, these are almost worthless by themselves. Who you know and how well connected you are to those with hiring authority/influence are always important and are by far the key differentiators in one?s chance of resuming a decent career in high tech (and resuming a career in many other fields). IMO, any training one takes should then be focused specifically on what is required by the organization to which you have great connections / "inside track". But, for those taking a timeout or for older employees, a credible amount of current experience on the specific mix of products/revisions/environments is expected to get hired even with an "inside track". Whereas you as an IT Dept Mgr believe employees do not need reasonably less expensive ways to get the skills to move on since books and trial software are available, my experience says that EX-employees (point of this article) and soon-to-be-laid-off older employees are not likely to find an employer impressed with "I studied some books", "practiced on some 30-day trial software" in a non-realistic business environment, or "I got a cert", "but no, I haven't worked on that in a production setting for 6mos, 1 year or more'. My point here is that the return on the (huge)investment of obtaining more credible "experience" via self-training with current software/hardware in a more realistic production environment (if possible) rather than just non-impressive book learning or non-impressive obtaining a cert (that requires no experience), is minimal for those "returning to work" or for those older but capable employees trying to transition to newer or different mix of product skills. Yes, your basic approach does come off arrogant and obnoxious but that is because it is unrealistic for this topic and for my point concerning older employees. While in a competitive, challenging and exciting industry it is easy to get pumped, and then easy for some to let fly inappropriate, arrogant platitudes like - those that do make the effort (20 minutes/day studying a manual) succeed; those that don?t fail rather than deal with the fact that our world isn?t so black and white and a not-insignificant number of good people are significantly adversely affected perhaps unnecessarily so. I would be interested to know more of what you meant in your last statement "I have a staff that proves it wrong monthly". Given that you believe that tons of your peers are wrong and your assertion that employees should be ready for a promotion or to change employers every three years, how often and how many new employees have you had to hire to replace those you promoted or who left after their three years or so were up? What did you look for in the new hires? Experience? Or did you rely more on self-study via books and a certification that did not require experience? If the latter, please let us know the specific industry you work in (and even company if that is ok :) ) My question as to what are reasonable ways to keep technical skills updated remains a good, valid and unanswered question for this topic and unanswered for a large and growing number of good people. Cheers,

Arnold_Layne
Arnold_Layne

What disgusts me regarding looking for a job after more than a year off is that every advert is for 'Sr' this or that, with very specific and very recent experience and skills. I'm in HW so this knocks me out immediately. It doesn't matter if you've kept up with changes, you don't have the immediate experience unless you're leaving one job to go to another. So they just want to leach off one another. Forget anyone with a relevant background that indicates ability to learn and 'catch up'. Very short- sighted and ugly.

bg6638
bg6638

>>Employees do not get shackled into supporting older software. They get shackled into working for the companies that do not upgrade their software

michael.brodock
michael.brodock

Well reading from a book is fine if you can do that, however I much prefer instructor led training. I have averaged about $8k to $10k per year in training since around 1998, so I have invested a lot of my own money, whereas the companies I have worked for have only contributed a very small fraction. If you expect your employees to get a cert a year, maybe you should try that yourself. It takes me about 9 months to get a major cert like MCSE, CNE or CCNP. Those are not small matters to get, at least not in my case. Time is something you can't get back. Just so you know, the Microsoft Action Pack is going away for those who cannot prove they are partners, so that is a bad thing in my opinion. It is nice to be able to "play" with the software in a non-production environment. I guess you are lucky. :)

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

" Employees do not get shackled into supporting older software. They get shackled into working for the companies that do not upgrade their software and working for managers without the vision to align their company's business with the technology platform they choose to use to support it. " I had to raise an eyebrow at that bit. Even as a unbashful techie, I can't advicate changing the business to suite the technology. Technology must always align with the business goals. Business should never align with the technology. If your company makes and markets widgets, you develop an information system that premotes making and marketing widgets. You can't say, "sorry, we don't have function X available with this information system so we can't take our widget business in that direction". The business managers say "we want to take our widget business in this direction." and we as tech support have to respond with 'Let me look into how we can do that with our current systems or what we have add to make that happen.' My whole day is spent trying to figure out how I can bend inadequate information systems to the will of the business and it's goals. It's a topic I'm very familiar with and I really do wish bending the business to the limitations of the technology was an option but it's just bad business. We exist to make IT support the business not limit the busniess to suite IT. The rest of it was all good points and I'm probably way over my head on this topic in general but that one point consistantly comes up in meetings and day to day tasks around these parts.

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