As a longtime ‘trailing spouse’, how do I get back into full-time work?

The problem

I am a ‘trailing spouse’ and struggling to get back into full-time work. Professionally, my husband and I started as equals. However, when we moved I took a break to manage the family. I then started part-time consultancy work. Now in another ex-pat location, I am struggling to find an organisation that values my experience. I speak several languages, have worked across sectors, and I have refreshed my skills while also networking and volunteering. How do I find a full-time position with some responsibility, for reasonable pay? Female, 50s

Jonathan’s answer

Despite your formal experience, organisations tend to be risk-averse in their hiring, often prioritising those with an uninterrupted CV over those who have had a career break. And the valuable skills deployed at home — time management, leadership, budgeting and dispute resolution — tend to be undervalued by recruiters when compared with your language skills and other experience across sectors.

Recruiters may also perceive — wrongly — that because of the gaps between your work experience, your office skills may be rusty and you may find it challenging to work within the organisation’s rules and practices.

You are not alone in wanting to put your skills and experience to use, perhaps rebuilding a professional standing with your peers from more than 20 years ago. Copenhagen University estimates that in that city alone, there are 10,000 unemployed spouses.

One tangible way the university supports both the lead and trailing partner is through the International Dual Career Network. The IDCN, first launched in 2011, is based in 14 cities around the world. It is a non-profit organisation with 20 corporate partners organising networking events, sharing experiences, volunteering and meeting local IDCN members who are recruiting.

Mary K Kobia, senior global mobility consultant at the University of Copenhagen, co-leads the Dual Career Spouse network at the university and is president of the local IDCN. In your case, she suggested you highlight your “very positive” transferable skills — for example, business skills from your consultancy work; being able to navigate multicultural organisations with your languages; being adaptable and flexible by working across sectors; your learning agility in acquiring new skills; and your sector knowledge and diplomacy from your networking. “All of these, with concrete examples, are very attractive to the right organisation,” she said.

While some trailing partners will wish to organise their own activities, others are beginning to expect their partner’s employer to support their professional development as part of any expat assignment. While you wait for your partner’s employer to do this, add some details to your introductory pitch (multiple sectors, range of skills, fluency in several languages) and connect with your local IDCN. If there isn’t one in your city, it could be time to start one.

Readers’ advice

While volunteering is unpaid, it is an indicator to prospective employers that are socially responsible and have high emotional intelligence. It is valuable to companies. Guest

Join a young start-up. Low pay, but you may get stocks (that could make you wealthy, if you’re lucky) and cutting edge experience. Start-ups struggle to find good people, so might be happy to find someone who is good and committed. Big B

Supporting your family and moving internationally will have given you space to grow as a person outside the rat race. You need to capitalise on this and tell a compelling story about your skills and insights . . . Do not give up! FTreader2020

The next problem

I work in investor relations at a private financial services company. There are rumours it will float in two to three years. How does a company’s organisational structure change when it goes through the process of an initial public offering, and how can I best position myself for my career to benefit from it? Anonymous

Jonathan Black is director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development and working life. Do you have a question for him? Email:

Source: Financial Times

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