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Back to work after a lengthy family leave

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The question

I am returning to the work force after a lengthy family leave. I have applied for jobs where, rather than submitting a résumé, the company has an online form applicants are to complete. Do you have any tips on how to complete these forms in order to maximize candidacy?

The answer

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There is a two-part answer to your question, one more tactical and one more strategic.

On the tactical side, you are most likely entering this new phase in your life with a variety of emotions and anticipating a whole new journey. Many professionals are taking longer periods of time off for a variety of reasons, from maternity or paternity leave, time for elder care, taking a professional sabbatical or going back to school to do an MBA. You are in good company!

When undertaking a job search it is important to be leveraging job boards, connecting with recruiters and doing all the traditional job search techniques. Using job boards is good from two perspectives: they are a direct line to opportunities and they can also raise your awareness of previously unknown companies and opportunities.

One way to maximize your candidacy is to speak more biographically rather than chronologically in your form. Most forms, are set up to do keyword searches, so it is key to incorporate as many of the key words in the job description into your information as you can, without losing your own "voice." It may be form-oriented but still take the opportunity to differentiate yourself through the quality and creativity of your responses.

On the strategic side, the more nonlinear your career journey, the more nonlinear your job search needs to be. People hire people, not paper, and it can be difficult to tell your story through an online form. Approximately 80 per cent of roles come through the "hidden" market. The challenge with a job search that is online-centred is that you are competing with more candidates.

While people do get hired through job search websites, you will need to invest more of your energy in the "hidden" market. Due to your time off, you can anticipate that finding a job may take more work and that some employers will be resistant or not value your experience.

Connect with your old professional network, your alumni and people you have met in your time off. Let them know you're looking – you'll likely be pleasantly surprised what comes from spreading the word.

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One other thing: Don't reduce the value of your time off. While you may not be "working," I am sure that you were very productive. Think about ways that you can shape your time away from the professional world in business terms. You were very likely managing projects, solving problems, dealing with budgets and leading people. While this was not in a work context, don't discount that experience. It is important to recognize the value and be able to articulate that in business terms to your prospective employer.

We had one client who took eight years off to support her elderly parents. One of the key successes in her journey was her ability to connect with people in her network. In fact, within 60 days of starting her search, she was hired into the financial industry and has since gone on to a very successful career. She made a great hire, since she came into the world of work with a different perspective, a tremendous amount of energy and a willingness to prove herself. If employers are willing to be more open minded, they can get a great employee.

For more, you can listen to my podcast with Dave Drummond, award-winning book designer, as he shares the secret to standing out and getting noticed in a highly competitive world.

Alan Kearns is the founder and head coach of CareerJoy , and the author of The Great Canadian Job Search Kit.

Have a question for one of our career coaches? Send it to . Please be advised that while The Globe and Mail may publish your submission, your name and address will be kept confidential.

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