Jumping Back Into the Job Pool

How should a single mom who was out of the market for four years and now has an MBA sell her skills?

Q: I am a 39-year-old single mother of a three-year-old, and I haven't had many jobs in my lifetime. I used to be married, and work was not an issue. Now, however, things are different.

I was an end-user specialist at my last job (almost four years ago) -- meaning I helped clients learn the software packages my employer had written for them. Our programmers wrote the software, I learned how to use it, and I then instructed our clients.

In order to become more marketable, I returned to school, and I will graduate in May with my MBA. How do you think potential employers will view my lack of work history? Do you have any suggestions?

-- C.C., Jones, Okla.


First of all, bravo on going back to school, especially as a single parent. The move shows you've got initiative, something employers always like to see. "She's not afraid to do something new," says Randy Williams, director of MBA Career Services at the University of California Irvine Graduate School of Management. "Maybe that's something she'll want to talk about in [a job] interview."

However, you probably know that the weak economy has made getting an interview, much less a job, tough this year, even for MBAs. In fact, 2002 is shaping up as perhaps the worst hiring year for B-school grads in a decade, school officials say. During the '90s boom, if you had 5 of the 10 attributes a company was looking for, you might get an offer pronto. Today, even if you have all 10, the company wants a couple more before they even take a look at you, Williams says.

Don't be discouraged. Just be prepared for what may be a longer-than-expected job hunt. But I digress. No, employers won't be put off by your lack work experience, our experts say -- if you sell yourself right. That degree you'll get in May is one of your biggest assets, obviously. "I would be inclined to position her as a new MBA graduate," says Louise Kursmark, president of Best Impression Career Services, a résumé and career-guidance company in Cincinnati.


  So when it comes to your résumé, our experts suggest putting a brief summary at the top that outlines your skills and experience. Then list your education and elaborate on key projects or case studies you did at B-school. Situations in which you took a leadership role or worked as part of a team are particularly relevant. "Students often develop some meaty skills [in school] that can become the basis for work experience," Kursmark adds.

Next should come your experience as an end-user specialist, which shows that you have a background in customer service and building client relationships, says Wendy D'Ambrose, director of career services at the Simmons Graduate School of Management, a B-school for women in Boston.

Finally, remember that any volunteering you did could count as work experience, especially if you led a fund-raising effort, solved a community problem, or performed some other function that put you in a position of responsibility. "Community leadership shows that you stayed involved, even if you weren't working for pay," D'Ambrose says.

The key, of course, is to make sure that you convey, through your résumé and interview, that you have the core attributes that companies want from management-school grads -- mainly communications and leadership skills. "People hire people they like," says Williams. "Even if you don't have all the background they're looking for on your résumé, they can see the potential."

Of course, a hiring company may ask you about gaps in your employment history. You should never lie. But you aren't obligated to disclose all the details about having a baby, sailing around the world, or whatever the case may be, says labor attorney Alan Koral, a managing partner at Vedder, Price, Kaufman & Kammholz in New York. Generic answers such as "I focused on my personal life" can generally suffice, he says. But as a rule, try also not to answer with statements so vague that they only raise suspicion.


  It's illegal for an employer to ask how old you are. And state and federal laws discourage companies from inquiring about an applicant's marital or family status, Koral adds. So, your three-year-old and how you plan to have your child taken care of while at work are none of their business. "The assumption that employers must make is that applicants who are single parents are making provisions for their kids," he says.

Neverthelesss, D'Ambrose says one way to help clear up any doubts recruiters may have is to ask at the end of interviews if they have any reservations about your application. If they answer yes, that's the perfect time to reassure them that you can work long hours (if you can) and travel (if you want to).

Which brings up a good point. Make sure you research a company's culture before you pursue an opportunity there. A place that expects new recruits to burn the midnight oil might not be a perfect fit for a single mom. By contrast, "there are tons of great companies that have amenities like on-site day-care centers," D'Ambrose says.


  Given your background in training others on software, Williams recommends looking for opportunities in the tech sector. That isn't only because you have experience there, but also because many tech companies are looking to improve their male-to-female ratios. Williams also stresses the importance of connecting with associations for women in business or with mentors who can help you network to find the right job.

It's unclear whether living in Oklahoma is going to help or hinder your search. Typically, many MBAs flock to commerce centers such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, since those are where the companies that like to hire pricey MBAs are headquartered. The conventional wisdom is that you have to be flexible about the industry and the location if you're serious about your career. But with MBA hiring at a trickle this year, the Sooner State may be a sweet spot for you. "I think it's going to be to her advantage if there aren't tons of MBAs running around" nearby, D'Ambrose says.

True, the typical MBA grad is about 28 and has about four or five years' work experience, Williams says. "But that doesn't mean you can't launch a great career at 39," he adds. "You just have to work at it." By the sound of your letter, you certainly seem up to the challenge. Just bear in mind that this year may be a bit more challenging than years past.

By Eric Wahlgren in New York

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