Going back to work after a gap of several years requires creating a whole new professional identity. Patience and persistence help, too.
By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for the past five years, and I’m ready to go back to work. My background is in finance and accounting, and I have an MBA in strategic management, but I’m at a loss as to how to sell myself after such a long absence from the corporate world. Especially in this hypercompetitive job market, will this big gap in my resume put me out of the running? — Just Judith
Dear J.J.: Not necessarily. “Success in re-launching your career is less a factor of how long you’ve been away and more a matter of your attitude and how you present yourself,” says Mary Anne Walsh, a New York City-based executive coach.
Bear in mind that getting back up to speed “usually takes about a year,” she adds. “Don’t get discouraged if it takes that long to reestablish your professional identity, or create a new one, even if you’re doing everything right.”
Walsh approaches the process with her clients in three steps. First, she says, “People who have been away from the business world for a while often find the idea of going back to be pretty daunting. They lack self-confidence. So first we work on that.”
One way to get your confidence back is to “identify what’s important to you at this point in your life. What is your purpose? Once you establish a goal and an overarching sense of what you want this stage of your career to look like, you can move on to the practical task of pinpointing which special aptitudes and skills you’ve developed — either before you left the workforce or in the years since then — that employers might want.”
These include a few traits that many job seekers undervalue in themselves, Walsh says: “Hiring managers look for maturity, stability, and dedication, and you may have more of these qualities now than you did when you were younger.”
Once you’ve determined what you want to do and clarified what qualifies you to do it, write a resume that emphasizes both your professional accomplishments in your former corporate life and what you’ve learned since then. Include any skills you’ve honed or acquired through volunteer work.
A handy sample resume that may spark some ideas for you is available from the Five O’Clock Club, a national career-counseling group.
Then start networking like mad, says Walsh: “Talk to as many people as you can in the field you’re trying to get into, or get back into.”
Your purpose is twofold: First, to find out as much as you can about where your skills might be needed now and how you would fit into organizations you might want to work for; and second, Walsh says, “to turn yourself from an outsider into an insider.”
The more people you meet who can introduce you to other people, the more that might lead to a job. “It really helps if you’ve stayed in touch with former colleagues and kept up with professional associations, and if you’ve stayed on top of industry trends,” Walsh notes. If not, start now.
Most of this is similar, of course, to what any job seeker has to do — with the significant difference of that five-year hiatus. Tempting as it may be to try and fudge your resume to hide it, “you do have to address that absence,” says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a job site that matches employers with people who want to work flexible hours. “But if you do it in the right way, it could actually work to your advantage by making you stand out from the crowd.”
How? “Write well-researched cover letters, tailored to each employer, that are conversational, not form letters,” Fell suggests. “And use those letters to portray what makes you unique.”
For example, Fell recently hired a former finance executive who, after being laid off in early 2009, decided with her husband that the moment was right to take some time off from the rat race: “They moved abroad with their kids and spent six months living in a couple of foreign countries. It was a great learning experience for them.”
That sense of adventure, plus the fact that “this candidate had obviously researched our company carefully and understood what we’re about,” impressed Fell enough to hire her.
“Companies are so swamped with job applicants now that they’re looking for reasons to rule people out,” she says. “But if you convey a clear picture of who you are and what makes you special, you just might catch someone’s eye.”
Talkback: Have you ever returned to the workforce after an extended absence? What worked for you? Leave a comment below.