How long is too long to be out of the workforce?

Wednesday 12th March 2014

Penny Pyror

An extended period out of the job market, particularly at a senior level, used to mean the death of some executives’ careers.

But that may not necessarily be the case anymore, due to the changing nature of how we work.

“Gardening leave” is no longer frowned upon, and as more and more of us enter the workforce as flexible contractors, freelancers or entrepreneurs, employees are increasingly calling the shots.

Judith Beck is managing director of Financial Recruitment Group – an executive search and selection firm in the financial services industry.

She agrees that being out of the workforce for more than 12 months, is no longer the career killer it once was.

“Years ago it [was]. But I really don't think, if you're a person at a senior executive position and you've taken 12 months off as a break because of a restructure or merger, certainly it’s hard to go back into the workforce at the same level position [but you can still get a senior role],” she says.

“Or they might do something entrepreneurial or start their own business.”

Her firm places many senior executives and says that it’s not unusual to see people out of the market for 12 months or so.

“If they were out of it for five years they might have lost some of their contacts,” Beck says.

She says after a few slow years, the employment market in her industry is starting to pick up.

“To us, things look a lot more positive and there have been more opportunities out there,” she says.

“The ones that are in senior positions that have been looking for a while are starting to be placed.”

““If you find really good people and you know they’re really good people... it actually makes sense to find a role for them and we’ve done that a couple of times.” Damian Crowley, Pengana Capital

Richard Atkinson is head of IFA product and relationships at Austock Life Limited, a specialist issuer of insurance bonds. He was involved in two hires at a senior level last year.

“[We] created a couple of positions, we actually really created the roles because we knew the people were available,” he says.

One of the positions was filled by a professional who was out of the workforce and the other by someone they knew was looking for other opportunities.

Atkinson also points out that many women who leave to have children may be out of the workforce for extended periods of time.

“It really wouldn't affect us at all. Some people do take gap years. Maternity leave certainly takes people out of the workforce. And they’re very good people,” he says.

For Austock a good team fit and the ability to learn are the key attributes they look for.

Damian Crowley, director of distribution at funds manager Pengana Capital, says he would be more interested in why somebody left their previous role, than how long they had been out of it.

“If you find really good people and you know they’re really good people, and you talk to their references, it actually makes sense to find a role for them and we’ve done that a couple of times,” he says.

“And good people like that tend to make their own role.”

The ability to adapt to the changing market is important too. For example, Crowley says they now tend to look for more strategic account managers, over traditional business development managers, as the nature of distribution of funds management is changing. Distribution of product now relies heavily on the researchers in retail and asset consultants in institutional, so fund managers need to have distribution specialists in this area.

The ability to see these trends and react to them, makes somebody more attractive employment-wise, regardless of whether they are currently employed or not.

The good news is that 12 months is probably not too long to be out of the workforce. The longer you are out, the harder it is to get back in, but if you still stay connected to the industry, you will be able to detect trends that you should be able to take advantage of – either through entrepreneurship and starting up your own business or perhaps joining a company in an entirely different role.

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