How to Keep Your Career Skills Up-to-Date at Home
Perhaps your plan is to be an at-home mother temporarily (until the baby starts kindergarten or until the oldest can drive). Or perhaps you think of at-home mothering as your forever-career. Either way, somewhere in the back of your mind is the awareness that at some point, perhaps when the children are grown and gone, you may want to re-enter the world of outside employment. And hot on the heels of that awareness is probably some worry that in the meantime you're falling behind, way behind, all those people who kept their noses to the corporate grindstone.
Your concerns are normal ones, and to be perfectly honest they are somewhat justified. Technology does change, and will continue to do so. Advances in scientific knowledge will make today's education practically obsolete in a few years. Businesses will be born and bought out, and the mentor you once counted on might well have been transferred to Australia. In other words, because you've turned your back on your outside career to focus on child-rearing you're doomed. Right? Wrong!
Here are some ways to keep your job skills current, and you can do most of them at home. By employing just a few you will find that if and when you decide to, or need to return to outside employment, you will be ready.
1. Study the business section of your local newspaper or magazine. Keep subscribing to professional journals and newsletters. These provide the most current information in any business. If anything, you will probably find that you actually read more in them than you did when you were employed. When you run across that article that rings your professional bell, take the time to write or call the author to express your appreciation or even dissent—this is networking on the grander scale, and with the "biggies" in your field.
2. Maintain your membership in professional organizations. Better yet, aim to maintain your involvement by attending meetings or perhaps by serving on a committee. Many at-home mothers do some kind of volunteer work, it may as well include something that keeps you in touch with your education or training.
3. Attend seminars and conferences. These are (usually) quite stimulating, and will help you remember that you actually have interests, skills, and talents besides the ones you use everyday as a full-time mom. I'm a believer in killing two birds with one stone, so if you can find a seminar held at a hotel, take advantage of the opportunity to have a "mini-vacation." Keep in mind that many seminars are offered at reduced rates to those with financial need, or that you may be able to help at registration or conference set-up to offset the costs.
4. Take a class through your local college, adult education program, or public library. This is an opportunity to maintain or upgrade skills, or to obtain additional education in areas that will make you more employable. If you're not computer literate, now's your chance. And more employers are seeking applicants who are bilingual (a valuable bargaining chip in salary-negotiations).
5. Maintain contact with former bosses and co-workers. Bare-bones minimum is a holiday card, much better is the occasional lunch where you can not only hear what's going on at work but also keep personal ties intact. These are the people who know your work—making sure they don't forget you is like money in the bank.
6. Use your special talents or skills in volunteer capacities. The old adage "use it or lose it" applies, and this is a good way to keep your skills up-to-date without more of the drawbacks of full-time outside employment. Besides, having a list of volunteer experiences will help to fill the gaps in your resume for the time you were full-time parenting.
7. Start your own business, one that actually fits your interests and your lifestyle. The entrepreneur has much in common with the Fortune 500 CEO. Both are required to have a grasp of the big picture, and also to be responsible for the myriad smaller details of the undertaking. If you can successfully run a catering or consulting or childcare business from your home (with all the competing family demands that entails) you can do anything. Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, and she did it backwards and in high heels. If starting your own business all by yourself seems too daunting, find a partner. This can be tricky though, so choose someone whose personality is a good match for yours and whose knowledge or skills are different from your own (you don't need two marketing geniuses, and someone better be able to keep the books!).Make sure you find someone who shares your basic ideas about where the business fits on the level of priorities. You are probably an at-home mother because your children are number one, if your partner's attitude is "business first," there is likely to be too much conflict.
8. Learn, learn, learn. Become eternally curious. Read books and watch educational TV. At parties, seek out the person with whom you have, apparently, nothing in common. (In my case, this would be anyone who has a grasp of economics or the Middle East). Ask questions, and really listen to the answers. In any situation, look for the learning experience. When your children ask those "why-is-the-sky-blue, what-do-gnats-eat" questions, instead of answering "I have no idea," get in the habit of saying "Let's find out." And do it. Go to the Internet, or the library, or the gnat-food expert down the street for the answer. You'll likely discover you are stimulated in directions you never dreamed. Besides, there's always a chance you'll someday find yourself a contestant on "Jeopardy" and won't your neighbors be impressed!
9. Take names, and give yours. Whether it's that interesting speaker at your club, the "unofficial" supervisor at your volunteer position, or the author of a newsletter article you particularly enjoyed (and wrote a note saying so), these are the very people you hope will remember you when someday you are re-entering the job market. One enterprising mother actually started a "maybe someday" card file in which she kept track of social and business contacts whom she'd met during her at-home years. When the time came to look for a part-time job, she re-contacted a few and wham, she found a job she loves and which she can do full-time eventually. Remember, it's often the "who you know" that gets the job.
10. If possible, periodically invest in a "career" outfit, even if your current clothing needs run more to T-shirts and jeans. One of the easiest ways to boost your self-confidence is to know you can "look the part." And self-confidence is often as important for career-readiness as the job skills themselves.
One final word of advice to allay your fears about falling behind in your career: it's your personal traits that assure your success in any career. Most employers expect to do a certain amount of training anyway, and are reasonably patient while you get back up to speed. They will teach you their particular policies and procedures. What they can't teach, however, is the ability to get along well with others, or to be flexible, or to genuinely care about the company's success. If you are enthusiastic, a willing learner, and dedicated to excellence, you will succeed. And lucky for you, these are the very traits you're developing every day as an at-home mother.