Career breaks need fixing

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The Independent Online
People take career breaks for a variety of reasons. Bringing up a family is the most common, but it is not unusual to take a break for travel or study, to pursue sporting ambitions or simply to take time out, reassess personal motivations and set new objectives.

While some companies do offer career break schemes, many amount to a job being held open at the same grade, though not necessarily at the same position, for a maximum of five years.

Some insist that career breakers return to work one period a year in order to keep up to date with developments and maintain social contact with colleagues. Others offer nothing more than statutory maternity rights.

Employers face the problem of retaining staff after a career break. Without the opportunity for discussion, the company's earlier investment in that person is lost. Any chances for future valuable contribution are gone. The employee may also miss the opportunity to arrange suitable future working arrangements. Fortunately, employers and employees are starting to be more proactive in their approach to career breaks.

Susan Small, a member of Women in Accountancy, which represents professional accountancy bodies in the UK and Ireland, has published a booklet entitled Managing a Career Break. It explains that a break should be carefully researched, planned and managed, not unlike a regular business plan.

Ms Small writes: "Do not wait too long before you start negotiating a career break with your employer as many women do for fear of being sidelined once their plans are known. If you set the agenda, based on knowing what you want and how it can work for the employer too, more time will give you more scope for getting what you want."

In the early Nineties we were told to take responsibility for our careers, which gave organisations an excuse to ignore the career-break issue for a while. Now employers are choosing to share in that responsibility, which leads to a win-win approach.

Communication and careful management can help to ensure that good employees return to work after their career break. Employer and employee should take the opportunity to work together to ensure that expectations are managed and met.

The timing of a career break can be crucial. Combining it with the successful completion of a project will leave a good impression of your skills.

Offering ideas of who may fill your role in your absence can be of immense help, as can your suggestions for minimising disruption.

Yet not all career breaks occur through choice, and it is in the employer's interest to prepare for organisational changes and redundancies by providing career management training.

"Companies are increasingly receptive to paying for in-house training and counselling for their staff," says Olwyn Burgess, director of career management for Cepec, a careers training and development consultancy. "It enables them to take ownership of their decisions and to discuss their objectives openly and proactively."

Cepec offers a variety of training options, of which its Career and Development Counselling Course is of particular interest. During this course, manager delegates are trained in the art of staff counselling. Listening skills and career advancement methods are discussed in group sessions and then followed by videotaped counselling sessions with outside volunteers.

"Company mergers and restructures are a major reason for the rising popularity of our portfolio of career management training options," Ms Burgess says. "Many employees are faced with having to reapply for their own job or for a new position within the new organisation, making our courses in skill recognition, self-marketing, CV and interview techniques invaluable."

Nigel Gardner decided to take a career break from his position as a financial director last May. Part of the terms of his resignation were that his company provided him with job search training. He chose to join an outplacement scheme with Executive Action which specialises in supporting people at director level.

Mr Gardner did not start out with a clear direction for his new career, but has developed a strategy, with the aid of Executive Action, to target, through networking and selective mailshots, a list of growing small- to medium-sized companies which might need his financial or administrative skills. "Executive Action has helped in many areas and has been very supportive, but, with hindsight, I needed to spend more time developing my selling skills," he says.

For more information, contact Cepec (tel: 0171-629 2266), Executive Action (tel: 0171-299 2900), Women in Accountancy, President, Anne Jenkins (tel and fax: 0181-287 4003; or email: