Acknowledge the Liability
The first thing you need to do when returning to the workforce after a hiatus of any length is to acknowledge to yourself that your absence is a liability vis-a-vis the job market. A nurse who hasn't worked in two, four, ten, or sixteen years certainly has a lot to catch up on, and I won't sugarcoat that it takes tremendous effort to get a foot in the proverbial door.
If you can come to terms with the fact that it will take a lot of due diligence, sweat equity, and skin in the game to get back on your nursing feet, then you're on your way. If you fool yourself that it's going to be easy, then you may have another thing coming and may want to be more realistic.
This is definitely tough love, but it's tough love with a purpose: to steel you for the challenging road ahead in pursuit of your (wholly attainable) goal of working as a nurse once again, even after being away for years.
Make a Plan
Trying to reenter the nursing workforce without a plan is like trying to get to a distant destination you've never visited before without a map or GPS. If your plan involves nothing more than searching job boards for open positions and blindly applying to anything that catches your eye, that's really not much of a plan.
Your reentry plan must include:
- A professional overhaul of your resume
- Establishment or refurbishment of an online professional brand (LinkedIn at the very least)
- Cover letters that tell a convincing story
- Enrollment in a nurse refresher course if it's been more than a year or two
- A simple, elegant business card for face-to-face networking
- Concerted research about favorable employers, jobs, and the overall nursing job market
- A commitment to assiduous and consistent networking
- Requesting informational interviews with key individuals
- Identifying your allies
- Outreach about your job search to everyone you know
- And a whole lot more
Check your Expectations
Before you begin this process, it's very important that you check your expectations at the door. You probably won't be able to hop right back into the ICU or PCU after eight years on the sidelines. You may need to embrace a different area of nursing where someone without recent experience may be welcome. Remember, this first job is just a stepping stone, a place to begin; you're not signing away your life and career. Rather, you're taking an initial position in order to reestablish your "street cred" as a nurse.
You may be very lucky and find a new nursing job fairly quickly -- this does happen. However, most nurses in this type of situation will need to be patient with the process. The nursing profession has both a forgiving side and an unforgiving side -- you'll need to look both sides squarely in the face.
Should You Keep Your Hand in the Game?
Even as we discuss the means to landing a nursing job after being away for a stretch, my advice is this: if you're taking a break for whatever reason (other than your own disability leave, medical conditions, or urgent situations demanding all or most of your time), you need to decide how you'll remain connected with the profession. Here are some ideas to chew on:
- Volunteer for a hospice organization, shelter, free clinic, etc at least once a month
- Stay connected with important colleagues via social media (especially LinkedIn), phone calls, emails, and face-to-face meetings
- Periodically attend a conference or seminar
- Pick up at least 1 per diem nursing shift per month in order to stay current and engaged
- Read nursing and medical journals, articles, blog posts, etc
- Listen to medical and nursing podcasts
- Write articles on LinkedIn or your own blog and keep your professional brand alive
If you're raising young children or caring for aging parents or a disabled spouse this may be a challenge, but in the interest of breaking back into the profession and job market, you need to do something to stay up to date and not completely out of the loop. Especially once young children begin school, you can set your sights on making time for some of the aforementioned suggestions. You can also choose to recruit your spouse, family members, friends, a career coach, or others to help keep you accountable to your plans and goals. This may not be easy, but it will make your professional reentry so much easier.
Do the Work
As stated above, you need a plan in order to tackle this very challenging task, and then you need to follow through with that plan. If you're a spreadsheet person, create a contact list on a spreadsheet and use it to record the vital data on every person with whom you interact or network (e.g.: name, address, employer, position, phone number, email, LinkedIn profile URL, other social media platforms, date you met, target dates for follow up, etc). If you can't or won't use a spreadsheet, a dedicated notebook or index cards will do. You can become a guerilla networker, and you can work that network like nobody's business.
As far as your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, business card, and other essential tools in your nursing career toolbox, you can handle these on your own, seek the help of a savvy friend, colleague, or family member, or you can hire a career coach (like myself) to help get things on the right track. Whatever you do, don't shortchange your search by not working prodigiously on these aspects of your nursing career reinvigoration.
It Can Be Done
A number of my clients have indeed landed very satisfying jobs after being away from the nursing workforce, and make no mistake that they worked very hard to secure those positions. Most of them worked LinkedIn like pros, updated their resumes until they shined, practiced their responses to difficult interview questions, networked like crazy, and used their wit, charm, intelligence, and savvy to convince a potential employer that they were worth "taking a chance on".
Many jobs are found through a "side door" or "back door", and this is where networking, personal connections, and warm introductions come into play. That nice man who owns the stationary store and you always chat with? His cousin is a DON at a local home health agency. Your former colleague who you keep in touch with on Facebook? Her dialysis center is hiring and she can introduce you to the hiring manager. You never know where an introduction or lead may come from -- don't discount anything or anyone. After all, so many people know people who work in healthcare.
In this process, you need to take off your blinders in terms of what kind of job you may need to land at first. Like I mentioned above, this position may be a stepping stone -- and a very important one at that. You can actively rebuild your resume and your confidence, and you can view this process as the planting of seeds in the interest of the near and distant future.
I know from experience that you can get this done. I also know that you need to be willing to really dig deep to make it happen. Rejection can be a debilitating experience, but you need to be ready to accept rejection, learn from it, and then take inspired action once again. As we used to tell our son when he was growing up: you need to pick yourself, brush yourself off, and try again.
Returning to the nursing workforce is worth it: the world needs you and you need to be engaged in the world. Whether you were temporarily disabled, caring for an aging parent or spouse, raising children, or traveling around the world, you deserve to continue to be a nurse if that's what you truly desire.
There's no shortage of professional opportunities for nurses, and if you're willing to think outside the box, you'll be more likely to land a fresh start and a new lease on your career.
If you need help, ask for it. This can be a lonely business, and having allies in your corner is paramount. Come back to nursing and rejoin the profession you love.
Keith Carlson, RN, BSN, NC-BC, is the Board Certified Nurse Coach behind NurseKeith.com and the well-known nursing blog, Digital Doorway. Please visit his online platforms and reach out for his support when you need it most.
Keith is the host of The Nurse Keith Show, his solo podcast focused on career advice and inspiration for nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast.
A widely published nurse writer, Keith is the author of Savvy Networking For Nurses: Getting Connected and Staying Connected in the 21st Century and Aspire to be Inspired: Creating a Nursing Career That Matters. He has contributed chapters to a number of books related to the nursing profession. Keith has written for Nurse.com, Nurse.org,, MultiBriefs News Service, LPNtoBSNOnline, StaffGarden, AUSMed, American Sentinel University, Black Doctor, Diabetes Lifestyle, the ANA blog, American Nurse Today, NursingCE.com, Working Nurse Magazine, and other online and print publications.
Mr. Carlson brings a plethora of experience as a nurse thought leader, keynote speaker, online nurse personality, social media influencer, podcaster, holistic career coach, writer, and well-known nurse entrepreneur. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his lovely and talented wife, Mary Rives, and their adorable and remarkably intelligent cat, George. (You can find George on Instagram by using the hashtag #georgethecatsantafe.)