Taking a break from any career can be risky, but taking one from technology, whether for personal reasons or to try another field, presents particular challenges. Employers typically demand up-to-date skills and experience. Without them, you may have trouble grabbing an employer's attention -- especially if you hope to return in a similar position and with a comparable salary.
Jenna Gausman, a career counselor with Kerwin and Associates, puts it bluntly: "If you take a hiatus, you could sacrifice your career."
But Gausman and others say techies keen on returning to IT can take steps during a hiatus that can help them bounce back -- or at least have a fighting chance of doing so.
How Long Is Too Long to Be Gone from IT?
The reentry challenge is no doubt formidable, especially if you've been out of IT for several years.
A thread on Monster's Technology Careers Message Board presents a good example: "No one seems to be willing to give me a chance by testing me on my technical skills," wrote Monster member Mary, who has two-and-a-half years of experience and a master's degree in computer science. She took three years off after her second child was born. "It seems years of continuous work experience is the absolute prerequisite for a position -- a master's degree plus a few years of work experience does not seem to count for anything after a break."
Indeed, employers often view techies who have been out of the workforce a year or longer as stale, even if their most recent position involved technologies still in use. And if your technical knowledge is no longer relevant, even if the underlying experience is still applicable, the bar for returning is that much higher. An example would be a programmer with expertise in out-of-date languages.
Gausman says techies who want to return at the same level should take no more than six months off. A break of one or two years means "you're going to have to be willing to take a lesser position."
Jon Byrd, principal of IT staffing firm Eximer Technology Solutions, similarly says techies returning to the field after being away a year or longer will often "have to take a less-than-optimal position to get some hands-on skills."
But others are more optimistic. "Up to two years, returning to IT is very possible," says Joshua Feinberg, cofounder of Computer Consulting 101, a training firm for IT consultants. "Between two and five years, it's possible but difficult. More than five years, you'd be facing an uphill battle."
IT Reentry Plan
To successfully return to the field, techies must:
- Stay in touch with their network.
- Maintain and continuously develop their technical skills.
- Demonstrate continued initiative and enthusiasm for the field.
More than anything else, your network of professional contacts will help you get back into the field after a hiatus of a year or two, Gausman says. Leveraging your network often means finding a former manager who knows your work and is confident you'll be able to get up to speed quickly on the job.
But you still need to refresh your skills. "Without the up-to-date, hot skills, you're really limited," says Jim Lanzalotto, a vice president at staffing firm Yoh.
Byrd suggests pursuing cutting-edge training or certifications -- Sun's challenging Java certification, for instance, or skills in agile software methodologies: "You want to brush up on things that are relevant."
Other important strategies:
And don't discount your life experiences while on hiatus. "Maturity counts for something," Byrd says.