Sherri Ruhl took a break from her career as the director of technology at the Houston Symphony when she had her second child. After a 16-year gap for childcare, eldercare, and many family moves, Sherri felt ready to return to the workforce. After learning about returnships, Sherri applied for and completed a returnship at Trimble, where she now works full-time as a business analyst. She talks about her return-to-work experience, creating a community with her returnship cohort, and all the ways she kept her skills sharp during her break.
Could you tell me a little bit about your career break? What type of work did you do before you took a break? What prompted it, and how long were you out of the workforce?
Before my break, I worked in various roles such as admin assistant, graphic artist, and marketing assistant. My experience as a computer trainer inspired me to pursue a technological career, and I transitioned to desktop support before moving into network engineering. I eventually became Director of Technology at a major symphony.
I loved my job and the challenges that came with it. But I had one child already and another on the way. With our first child came some unique challenges, so my husband and I decided it was best if I took a break from my career to care for our growing family. It was only supposed to be a short break, but it turned into 16 years. Just like a lot of other people my age, I was a part of the so-called “Generation Squeeze,” where I had to take care of my elderly parents at the same time as caring for my kids. I also became a trailing spouse when my husband’s job kept us moving every four years, including overseas, where I didn’t have a work visa. So it was challenging to try to get a job, let alone try to keep a career going.
After 16 years, the workforce has evolved, and there are many more remote jobs now, which I saw as my chance to return to work. With remote work, I could have a career again because I could take my job wherever my husband’s job would go. Technology has made it an amazing time to be a working parent.
When I started my job hunt, I quickly became discouraged, because having a 16 year break made it very challenging to find a job. I thought I’d have to start all over again in a non-technical field. Then I read a news article about returnships which led me to Path Forward. Learning about returnships lit a fire under me because there were opportunities in my career area where my career break wouldn’t count against me.
Once you decided to return to work, did you take any courses to kind of brush up on your skills?
Even though I took a 16 year break, it didn’t mean that I didn’t keep my skills up to date. I kept my soft skills sharp by doing a lot of volunteering, taking up roles of responsibility and leadership on different projects. In terms of getting ready to reenter the workforce, I figured that my best bet would be in project management, which had transferable skills from my previous position. I did obtain a Google certification and spent a lot of time studying to update my skills in that area.
Can you talk a little bit about your returnship role at Trimble?
I cannot say enough about the Trimble returnship program. They did such an amazing job. When we returners came in on day one, we were given a personalized schedule. We had training every week, which gave us resources to learn on our own and build up our skills. I felt fully supported by Trimble during my transition back to work.
We actually had a chance to meet with Trimble CEO Rob Painter, where he explained why the Trimble Renew returnship program was so important. We had other executives come in and talk with us as well. We were people just returning to the workforce, and having the opportunity to meet and talk to Trimble leadership made us feel so important and welcome.
I was brought in as a business analyst. I had four projects to work on, and those projects were specifically chosen to help me make connections with other departments and get to know how our teams work together. They were challenging enough to make me feel excited about what I was doing.
One of my favorite aspects of the returnship was my Trimble cohort. Our group attended everything together and the program did a good job of helping us connect with each other. Since our cohort was spread throughout the organization, it gave me a chance to meet people who were in marketing, software development and more. Even now that the returnship is done, our cohort still meets virtually for a coffee break to discuss work and life. Not only that, but we actually reached out to and have built relationships with the first Trimble cohort as well. I continue to learn from and be inspired by these groups.
What did you find most helpful about being part of the Path Forward program at Trimble?
I really liked having the weekly networking sessions. The topics they covered – such as asking for feedback, or reflecting on how much things have changed in the workforce – had great advice for us to navigate our returnships. Also, having time to talk with others going through a returnship was invaluable. I remember being pretty stressed at the beginning of my returnship, and during these sessions I had the chance to talk to returners who were in the middle and end of their programs, who assured us that everything would be fine, that we’d get used to it. And, I remember thinking, how can you know that? But sure enough, when I was in the middle of my returnship, I felt more comfortable, and ended up coaching and giving advice to those who were just starting. I always felt so energized after those sessions.
Path Forward also gave me the power to return to work in the field of my choice. I didn’t have to start over in a completely different field because I wasn’t compatible anymore. I remember when I first visited the Path Forward website, and started reading the success stories, it made such a difference for me. Hopefully my story will offer someone else some support and encouragement.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your returnship?
In the middle of my returnship, my manager told me she thought I was doing an amazing job. I was given two high profile projects to work on, which definitely challenged me. But what’s fabulous about the program is that my manager was right next to me to provide encouragement and answer any questions I had, as were my other coworkers. I never felt like I was just left to figure things out on my own. I was so proud of myself when these projects came to a successful close.
Do you have any advice for future returners?
While you’re on break, try to volunteer. That ended up helping me during my job search, because it was something I could put on my resume, and talk about during interviews. I could point to the skills that being a volunteer coordinator, project manager, or even scoutmaster had helped me develop.
When you’re in a returnship, don’t be afraid to ask questions. There’s a fear that you’ll look inexperienced or unskilled, but that isn’t how others will see it at all. Everyone is so supportive of returners and wants you to succeed!