A woman with blonde hair smiling at the camera against a plain, cream wall.
Barbara MacCarthy. Image: Johnson & Johnson

What is it like returning to work after a 12-year career break?

17 Sep 2021

Barbara MacCarthy talks about her experience and how those on career breaks are ‘the hidden workforce’.

Attracting and retaining talent is always a major priority for companies, informing their hiring strategies from early-stage recruits right up to the most experienced leaders.

But there are many sections of the workforce to consider when looking for top talent, including returners – those who wish to return to the workforce after a career break.

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While this cohort of talent can be extremely valuable, they must be sought, nurtured and developed correctly. For example, returners can often have very specific challenges around confidence if they have been on an extended break, which can hinder them when they want to return to work.

Barbara MacCarthy is a senior manufacturing engineer working in the engineering department in Johnson & Johnson Vision in Limerick.

She joined the company through its Re-Ignite programme, a paid ‘returnship’ initiative for those who have worked in science, technology, engineering, maths, manufacturing or design roles and have been out of their field for two or more years.

“I took my career break in 2007. At the time I worked in Motorola Ireland, which unfortunately decided to close its offices in Ireland. I was expecting my third child and subsequently decided to take the opportunity to spend some time with my family,” MacCarthy told Siliconrepublic.com.

“I expected to take a two-year career break, which ultimately ended up being a 12-year career break.”

When she decided to return to full-time employment, MacCarthy had lost confidence in her skills and abilities. “This came as a complete surprise to me,” she said.

“I questioned if my skills were still relevant to the workplace. I felt I would be judged for taking a career break. How do I justify or explain 12 years to an employer? I suppose I’m like a lot of women at the school gates, I’m highly skilled and educated but I didn’t know how to break back into the workplace and didn’t have the self-confidence either. In a sense, we are a hidden workforce.”

While being out of the workforce for an extended period could be a source of anxiety or lead to imposter syndrome for returners, it’s important for companies to recognise that those career breaks can also give people unique insights and invaluable experience, which can bring a diverse perspective to the team.

‘I have more self-confidence now. I am also extremely proud of my career break’

MacCarthy said when she came to Johnson & Johnson, the Re-Ignite programme recognised this value as well as the hit a person’s self-confidence can take after a long career break.

“The Re-Ignite programme provided the support structures I needed to help me adjust to returning to the workplace,” she said.

“After participating in the programme, I found that I slotted back into the work environment, it was like I never left. This was very empowering. I felt relevant and that I hadn’t lost my skills.”

She advised other people to not be afraid of returning to the workplace after a career break and to know “that you are still relevant and that the life experience you’ve gained from a career break is very valuable experience”.

“I have more self-confidence now. I am also extremely proud of my career break,” she added. “I know that my career break has provided me with invaluable life experience, a diverse mindset and perspective that adds value to my role and to the engineering department as a whole.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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