3 Ways to Protect Your Career (and Earning Potential) During a Work Hiatus

"Even if your mind is more consumed by wet wipes than spreadsheets, make an effort to nurture your relationships."

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For some women, the wage gap is a lot wider than just 22 cents. Take a career break to care for a child or other family member, and it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Of course women aren’t the only ones to step out of a career to care for loved ones, but they still make up the vast majority.)

It’s not just the loss of salary—missed opportunities for promotions, raises and retirement contributions can amplify the cost of taking time off. Take a 30-year-old woman making $50,000 who takes a two-year break. As the Center for American Progress’s interactive calculator shows, she’s not just losing $100,000 in wages. She’ll also surrender an estimated $113,361 in wage growth and a potential $98,189 in retirement assets and benefits (assuming she contributes 5 percent to an employer-sponsored plan and gets a match). That’s more than $300,000 lost.

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And she might end up taking a pay cut when she returns: A 2018 PayScale report finds women who jump back into the workforce after just one year away typically take a pay cut of more than 7 percent.

The good news is that a strategic approach before and during any hiatus can help mitigate these effects. It’s important to budget how much time you can actually afford to take off first, and consider whether there are opportunities to scale back rather than step out of the workforce entirely. But if you opt to stop working altogether, these three moves can help make re-entry smoother.

1. Plan ahead as much as possible.

Life throws us curve balls, and, of course, we can’t choose when a parent needs a caregiver, for example. But many women make a calculated choice to delay children until they’ve gained traction in their careers—and that’s wise. Taking a break after your skills and income have had time to grow will give you more options when you’re ready to return and a higher income re-entry point. (And you’ll have more time to save money to cover child-rearing costs.)

Giving ample notice also lets you plan a smooth transition for projects and clients, so you can leave on good terms and maintain good relationships.

2. Nurture your network.

Even if your mind is more consumed by wet wipes than spreadsheets, make an effort to nurture your relationships. Executive coach Mikaela Kiner recommends reaching out regularly to at least one person who might be instrumental when it’s time to find your next job, whether that’s an old manager, a peer or a client. “When you’re ready to start looking, it won’t feel like you’re asking for a big favor out of nowhere,” she says.

3. Don’t take a break from learning.

The world moves fast, and you can’t let your skills atrophy, says Kiner. Commit to bolstering your technological proficiency with online trainings or choose a strategic volunteer opportunity that connects you with potential professional contacts. If it’s possible in your line of work, do some freelancing or consulting work. “Not only will it update your resume, but you’ll meet new people and enhance your skills,” Kiner says.

When it’s time to return, consider connecting with an organization like iRelaunch or The Swing Shift, which specialize in helping women who’ve taken a career hiatus master new skills, and, more importantly, build the confidence needed to negotiate a competitive salary.

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