Coming back after a career break

Coleen Semple took a seven-year career break from her high-flying role in financial services. Now she is back at a lower level, but feels she has got the balance right for now.

Coleen Semple had a high-flying career in the financial services industry 12 years ago. She had worked for nine years for Bankers Trust and while she was on maternity leave having her first child the organisation was taken over by Deutsche Bank.

When she returned to work four days a week in the office and one day from home it was as Vice President of her division of Deutsche Bank.

She modestly says of her achievements: “I had done okay.”

It was a role that involved quite a bit of travel. Her daughter Cara went to nursery and Coleen got on with her job, but two years later she had her second child. Again, following maternity leave there was another merger and State Street took over her division of Deutsche Bank.

She decided to take a part-time job as an operations consultant at State Street, working three days a week.”It was a big change, but your priorities alter,” says Coleen, who is based in Linlithgow in Scotland.

Even so, on the days she worked she had to leave home just after 7am with the baby and a toddler and drop them off at nursery before driving to the other side of Edinburgh to work.

There came a point where it just seemed that something had to give. “It was a bit of a nightmare,” she says, “trying to get a baby and toddler into the car at 7am to get to the nursery on time. There was one morning where I was at the end of my tether and I gave the children breadsticks for breakfast and shoved them in the back of the car. I knew they could have breakfast later at nursery, but I looked in my mirror at them in the back of the car and I thought ‘this is wrong’. There was no quality of life for any of us.”

Coleen was also the kind of person who wanted to do everything the best she could do and she felt she was only giving 60% both at work and at home. Then there was the culture at work. She had to leave at 5pm to pick up from nursery and she felt her colleagues were all looking at their watches. “We had the kind of environment where you would work until the work was done. Before I had children I would work regularly till 8 or 9pm. I made a rod for my own back really. When I needed quality of life and to do things like keep the house running it was just impossible to keep up those hours,” she says.

Career break
So she sat down with her husband and had a long chat. The upshot was that she decided to take a career break. Seven years later she is just getting back into the financial services sector and at a much lower level than she left it, but she says she has no regrets. “I’m really glad I took the break because the kids have benefited. They are complaining now that they have to go to holiday clubs over the summer, but it’s only one day a week and they have had it so good for so long,” she laughs. “I wonder now why I kept on at my old job.”

Over the seven years, though, she has branched off in different directions. A couple of months after she left her job in August 2002 she started going to exercise to music classes and then did a course in how to teach the classes herself. She ended up giving five to six classes a week when Cara started school. “It kept me sane,” she says.

Then a part-time job came up at the fitness company she was working for giving healthy lifestyle advice to families with overweight children in West Lothian, an area with a high level of social deprivation.

“We were telling them how to eat healthily, but obesity was the least of their problems,” says Coleen. “It was about surviving day to day. It seemed like a quick fix to meet government targets and they had given it to a leisure company without thinking at all about all the other things these kids had to deal with.”

She found the job very frustrating and often came home in tears thinking about the children she was talking to. “A psychologist told me you have to think about the little things that can make a difference to these children, for instance, the fact that you look them in the eye and smile at them can show them you care. That can have a lasting impact,” she says.

The comeback
Earlier this year she decided she needed to get back into the financial sector and do something she was skilled at and enjoyed.

She joined Linkedin and made connections with old work colleagues, but she says she didn’t want to ask any favours. Plus she wanted to work part time and knew she would have to go for more administrative level jobs. “I wasn’t sure how people I used to work with or how I would feel about that,” she says. So she also registered with a couple of agencies and looked at websites. Not many part-time jobs came up in financial services, but eventually she went for an interview. The recruitment process for the firm involved was lengthy and in the middle of it another job at life insurance and pensions firm Aegon came up. She was offered that job within a week and took it.

Indeed the feedback from the interview said they found her really refreshing because she was so honest. They asked her what her five-year plan was, for instance, and she said she had no idea since she had had such a long break. “I decided to be very normal and ‘what you see is what you get’. In the past I would have been much more gung ho and ambitious,” she says.

She’s very happy to be back in a world she loves. “It is fantastic to be back and contributing. There’s also the social aspect of work,” she says. She does 18 hours a week spread over four days. Over the summer, she does three days a week.

Before taking the job, she and her husband sat down with the children. Her husband explained that their mum had given up a lot in the past and it was time she had some time for herself.

Coleen says it was hard going back as an older person. She is 43 now. “I felt even at the interview that people were thinking she’s old. She won’t be much fun,” she says.

Then there was learning new office systems. She had used spreadsheets and other systems in her previous job and she says many of the systems were ones which any new employee would have had to learn. However, a lot of the work is web-based. “I had a lightbulb moment recently,” she said, “where it all fitted together. It can be a bit daunting at the beginning though.”

Most of her new colleagues are younger than her, including her boss, but she says she doesn’t find the gap in experience too difficult because what she is doing – investment writing – is very different from what she did before so she is learning new skills.

Coleen does admit to having had the odd pang for her former higher flying roles, but she’s happy where she is for now. She says: “When I first started looking for a new job I was looking at full-time roles of 40 hours plus. I thought ‘I could do that’, but I don’t think that now. I am quite happy as I have a really nice job and prospects to develop my career when my children are older.”

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