‘Soft’ Skills Will Help Your Return to Work | Real Advice from Returners

Sure, technical skills are important. But it’s actually the so-called “soft skills” that are often the hardest to master and also the most in demand by employers

For mid-career roles especially, a high level of communication, teamwork, and management abilities are crucial.

Here’s the good news: the skills you gained from your previous work experience are still there. Plus, you’ve almost certainly honed these skills even further during your career break, through time spent on child and family care, volunteering, and more.

No one knows this better than Path Forward returners. For this article, part of the occasional “Real Advice from Returners” series, we asked nine returners to talk about which soft skills helped them successfully restart their careers.

Skills gained from raising kids or providing family care

While on a career break to provide care for kids, family, self, or others, you developed abilities that have huge value in the workplace. Like Bridget and Abby, you may have navigated the healthcare system, for example, or managed schedules and appointments, made crucial decisions, and overall grown deep multitasking and management skills.

There were so many soft skills I picked up during my career break: having patience, thinking outside the box, being a critical listener, adapting to different learning styles, appreciating other perspectives, and remaining calm under pressure. The list goes on and on.

I’ve applied countless skills gained during my career break in my post-break career. I am definitely a better team member the second time around!
There’s something that happens when you have children—your brain rewires.

When you have a kid, the repercussions of not doing something important are so much worse and immediate than at work. I’ve become incredibly good at prioritizing, managing my time, and avoiding time-wasting activities. I’m always thinking, “What can I do now?”

Having kids teaches you that if you don’t take care of something right now, it’s never gonna happen. Procrastination is just no longer a thing for me.

Skills gained from volunteering

If you volunteered or undertook contract work during your break, you almost certainly honed your project management and leadership skills. Examples include: running fundraisers for the PTA, leading a school team or club, undertaking a project for a nonprofit organization, and more. As in the case of Heidi and Alicia, these experiences build skills that are in demand and transfer directly to the workplace. 

My break, and the experience I got from raising my kids and volunteering, helped me build up my organizational skills, made me better at dealing with stress, and helped me approach difficult situations more calmly and strategically.
I did a lot of strategic volunteering in my community to help build my resume. I was selected for the Cupertino City Council and served on the PTA board where I led a three-year project overhauling the safety-preparedness procedures for my local elementary school. I also sat on the board of directors for my HOA, served as webmaster for my community’s website, and founded an emergency response committee.

From those experiences, I learned valuable people skills and project management fundamentals, and I’m a much wiser employee now than when I left the workforce.

Skills gained through self-discovery

It bears repeating: “We are more than our work.” Perhaps you took time during your career break to explore your interests or develop connections with friends and family. Learning about work-life balance is important and harder than it sounds. As Kathryn and Vanessa discovered, managing stress and burnout is not so much a soft skill as a life skill.

In the past when I was given a project, I would focus on that project like nothing else existed. But there needs to be balance between work and home. Family is important and work is important – you have to make time for both.
In my previous career, I was so focused on working, working, working, and when I wasn’t at work, I was trying to balance being a mom, a wife, a daughter, and a sister.

During my break, I had time to myself, and I tried to go back and find the things that inspire and fulfill me. That meant both spending time on personal interests and trying to find what would bring me fulfillment in my next career. It reminded me of the importance of taking time for your own personal growth.

Now that I’m back in the workforce, I still try to set aside time for myself and dedicate myself to hobbies outside of work, because I now recognize that that’s the best way to fight back against burnout.

Skills gained from previous work experience

From the time you first entered the workforce, you have learned how to communicate with people, solve problems, work in a team, and more. As Michelle and Matt note, these soft skills are a big asset to any job – and to mid-level roles in particular.

As an auditor, I was accustomed to working with all levels of individuals in an organization. This translated well during my returnship, as oftentimes I needed to reach out to people outside of my own team who didn’t know who I was or why I was asking them certain questions. Having experienced this in the past, I was able to be persistent and assertive enough to get the answers I needed.

My experience with entrepreneurship also helped me learn that when there’s no set playbook I have to figure things out on my own. Being curious and resourceful enough to know how to find the information I need gave me the confidence to work in an environment of ambiguity. Even the creative skills I picked up from running the marketing and social media for my boutique are relevant.
I think keeping an open mindset and having a willingness to listen and engage with people helps immensely. Those types of soft skills always go a long way. You should always try to build a connection with the people you’re working with.

What skills have you gained?

Now it’s your turn. Try the following exercise to demonstrate to yourself – no matter how long your career break was – that you gained, retained, and mastered many important skills during and before your time away from the paid workforce.

First, make a list of all the responsibilities you had to manage in the following settings: in previous jobs, volunteer roles, or at home. Then for each responsibility, think about what soft skills you put to use. (Our article on how to translate your non-work experience into business language may be helpful for this.) Review the list you came up with. It will probably be longer than you expected!

As Barbara notes, know that your abilities – no matter when or where you gained them – add value to workplaces and teams.

Systems change all the time. Software changes all the time. But your ability to manage your time, manage your team, manage a project – that stays with you regardless of the job you’re in. If you continue to tap into your knowledge base, and be confident, you’ll be just fine.

Sincere thanks to all Path Forward returners for generously sharing their stories. Pictured above: Abby Carrales, Barbara Miller, Alicia Schober, and Matt Gasbarro. 

Anna Khomina is a content writer and marketing coordinator at Path Forward.