To Plot Your Path Back Into the Work Force, Find Guides to the Territory

Amy Joyce writes for the Washington Post

Ahhh. Joining the ranks of the working folk. One morning you wake up (really early), put on those work clothes and just jump right in, right?

Uh, no. Whether you're hopping on board after undergraduate studies, grad school or a few years of volunteer or military service, the workplace is a different world.

Sure, those internships help. Helping to build a community in a Third World country will probably do you a lot of good. But entering the work force, or reentering it after a stint away from the 9-to-5 world, can be a challenge.

It's important to remember that you're not expected to know it all. You're not supposed to know that you don't call the chief executive by her first name. How are you going to find out that "Friday casual" doesn't really mean casual? You should know, though, that you need to ask questions. Put the ego away. Use your previous organization's career counselors to help you prepare. Talk to those who have been through the great transition, and use what you've already learned in those internships and volunteer assignments to smooth it along.

"We promote and encourage current students to participate in volunteer activities and internships so the shock of the real world is lessened," said Marva Gumbs, director of career services for George Washington University's career center.

Did she say shock?

The Military: There are many advantages to joining the work force after a stint in military service. You may already have the leadership qualities, you know how to take orders and unlike many of us, you iron your own shirts.

But there can be a problem, according to Peter R. McCarthy, president of McCarthy & Co., an executive recruiting and outplacement firm in Arlington, Va.

"What I see with this group is that a lot are coming out too self-assured. They pick up on all the hype of the low unemployment rate, and they conclude that [joining the work force] is easy," he said. "This attitude makes them not plan as well as they should."

So how should you plan? Luckily for this group, career transition help is readily available. Take advantage of that, McCarthy said, well before you're about to trade one uniform for another.

Start educating yourself and planning for that new job about a year before you get out. Subscribe to the newspapers in the area where you want to work, McCarthy suggests, so you can read up on the culture of the companies and developments at the one that may become your employer. "Do the research on the company. [Find out] what their mission is, where the people who are there come from," he said.

Once you're there, try to identify potential mentors, McCarthy advised. Ask yourself, "Who are the role models I could reach out to, not in a brown-nosing way, but in an 'I would be grateful for this or that' way," he said. Take note of people with military backgrounds, in particular. You have common experiences, and they would be likely to take you under their neatly pressed wings.

Don't Be Shy: Mentoring is the key in many situations. Grab onto someone you think would shepherd you and don't let go. Introduce yourself. Ask questions. Sounds annoying, doesn't it? Maybe it is, but it works.

"Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to people. Call people, ask them what they do and if you can meet with them," advised Alyssa Farber, 28, a senior consultant at KPMG Peat Marwick. "Get involved with your community. Get involved with things you like at night."

Farber suggested finding someone in your office who went to your college or was in your branch of the service. Find that common ground. "Look for someone who will tell you those jeans are inappropriate," she said.

Third-World Experience: Steven Douglas, 30, has a big transition to make. After Peace Corps projects in South Africa, Douglas found that he needed to think hard about his future before jumping into an office job.

"I think the pace here . . . dealing with the morning traffic is much more aggressive" than in South Africa, he said. "For the last two years, I haven't had to live and work in an aggressive environment."

In South Africa, he set up five schools in four villages--not something most corporate headquarters require. So Douglas plans to "take a little bit of time to explore my options. I need to reorganize my thoughts before I go on."

Luckily for him, the Peace Corps offers the opportunity to research prospective jobs. Peace Corps Return Volunteer Services provides career reentry information. The service says it helps about 3,500 returning Peace Corps workers annually.

"One of our missions is trying to educate employers as to the value of hiring Peace Corps volunteers," said Shanta Swezy of Return Volunteer Services.

The Returning Peace Corps Volunteer board advises returnees to be patient but not to be shy about networking. If they find where their skills lie after their service abroad, they can manage a more successful transition.

Amy Joyce writes for the Washington Post. She can be reached at

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