'It was a big step returning to work after 20 years at home'
The Government is backing measures to get over-50s back in employment, but just how hard is it to return? Ailin Quinlan reports
In 1991, a few years after she got married, Mary Leahy left the workforce. After moving from Dublin to her new home in the Cork countryside, the former nurse spent the next 20 years rearing her family and looking after her ageing parents-in-law.
Looking back, she says one of the reasons she had to leave the nursing profession at the time was there was so little chance of employment in or around the Banteer area of north Cork where she now lived.
Mary didn't want to commute between a job in Dublin and her home in the village of Nead, where she now lived, and the chances of getting a permanent nursing job locally were very low.
"There were very few jobs in nursing at that time. I didn't want to commute. I also didn't want to be a sort of temporary on-call nurse," recalls Mary, now 56 and the mother of three sons and a daughter. "I just didn't think I could manage with a small baby and the commute to Cork city to work." And there was another, deeper, reason: "I also felt it was important to be a stay-at-home mum for my children."
However, in 2010, Mary made the decision to return to the profession she loved.
"It was a big step to go back to work," says Mary, who prepared for the transition by completing the nursing degree programme through a remote learning course. "I had done apprenticeship style training as a nurse in the 80s and the modern equivalent of that was a diploma. However, now I had the degree which I was able to do through distance education."
Next step for the determined returnee was a Pathways to Employment Course with IRD Duhallow, a community-based integrated rural development company which combines the resources of local authorities, State bodies, local communities and individual entrepreneurs to support business, training and community enterprise. Following that, Mary completed a Back-to-Nursing course. Her first foray into the workplace in 20 years began the following year around the age of 50, with a part-time job in a nursing home. Three years later she joined the HSE as a staff nurse.
"I was fairly nervous going back into the nursing profession," she admits, but says she finds it has made her more organised and she also feels "more challenged and fulfilled". "I felt if I don't do it now, I never would. I didn't think I was really content to spend the rest of my life at home doing housework!"
It was a big challenge as the nursing profession - and medicine generally - had undergone a transformation since Mary had last stepped foot in a ward on a professional basis.
"After 20 years out of the workforce, one of the biggest challenges was coming to grips with new technology," she recalls. "I was dealing with high-tech electric beds, for example, and there were new policies and protocols around nursing practise so I had to get up to speed with them. Nursing is different now. When I worked previously, there were fewer consultants attached to wards. Now there are many, many people. Things are more specialised. You also have more tests of different kinds," she says, adding that CT and MRI scans are now a very normal part of hospital life, which was not the case when she was starting out.
"The variety of techniques and treatment has hugely expanded. Also I find the general public is much more informed than they would have been in the past. There is more access to information now and people will come into hospital with more knowledge about their condition than they would have had 20 years ago."
Another change she sees is because of advances in medicine, people are living with much more complex conditions than they would have back in the 80s and early 90s.
"I often felt I would love to have a younger brain because sometimes I find it hard to recall new things."
However, she says she found that the experience she had gained in her 20 years in the home and community had its advantages.
"The upside was my life experience, which made it so much easier for me to deal with people and relate to people.
"The family adapted fairly quickly to me working. The fact I was only working part-time meant it was not an enormous commitment. These days, my husband can work from home which means there's usually somebody here."
People like Mary, who are prepared to upskill, are now being welcomed back by employers desperate to find enthusiastic, hard-working staff. In this context, a new Government initiative to encourage long-term unemployed workers aged 50 and over back into the workforce by providing substantial grants to employers has the potential to create a new much-needed talent pool, believes businesswoman Ciara Wilson, President of Network Ireland's Cork branch. She's very supportive of the €30m enhancement of the existing JobsPlus scheme just announced in Budget 18, which offers employers a subsidy of €10,000 to employ any long-term unemployed person over the age of 50.
"We have employed Jobs Plus people before and if someone is on JobsPlus, it means they really want to go back to work, so that is a win-win for the employer," says Wilson. "It's great because I feel this initiative will encourage women who are over 50 and who have life and professional skills to re-enter the workforce. I think the grant opens the market for these ladies to come back into the labour market. Yes, the money will help, but it's also all about opening up the availability of a new labour pool with great life skills. It's a real positive."
The initiative also gets the thumbs up from Neil McDonnell, CEO of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises organisation.
"Schemes like this can encourage people back into the workforce," he said, pointing out, however, that people returning to employment after significant time outside the workforce often need training to update their skills.
ISME was also concerned about other issues which acted as a disincentive to people going back to work, he said, such as problems with the taxation and the social protection systems.
"For the over-50s or anyone who has children, it's all about other issues such as loss of medical cards and other social welfare benefits - this could act as a real disincentive," he says, adding that housing was another issue for people returning to work in their 50s. "Some people are worried about getting a job paying more than €35,000 because that is the cut-off for social housing assessment."
Orla O'Connor, Director of the National Women's Council, adds: "It is important supports are put in place in terms of the re-integration of long-term unemployed men or women in the workforce."
Make it work: How to bag yourself a great job after 50
So if you're thinking of returning to the workforce after a long absence, just how can you catch an employer's eye?
Employmum founder Karen O'Reilly, who runs a recruitment agency which offers free workshops for women returning to work, has the following advice.
- Prepare a knockout CV - get professional help if necessary. Ensure your LinkedIn profile is up to date and targets the right people.
- Networking is crucial for getting back into the workforce. Let everyone know you are seeking a job. Use connections - family, friends, ex-colleagues etc and be clear about what kind of role you are seeking. Networking online through Twitter and Facebook can also help.
- Talk to a life or career coach to get your head in the right place for returning to work. It should cost from about €100 for a two-hour session with follow-up afterwards, says Karen.
- Upskill if necessary. There are many Springboard courses run at many third level institutions for free and an excellent free Women Reboot Programme run by Software Skillnet for women with a background in tech. Invest in you.
- Feel the fear and do it anyway. Preparation is key once you get to interview stage. Prepare interview technique, body language and practise your positive message to a potential employer in terms of the skill and experience you can bring. Never apologise for taking time out to mind your children. As we reach nearly full employment in Ireland, employers are seeking female returnees, so remember you are pushing an open door.