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Getting back into the work force - without going back to school

If you've been out of the work force for a period of years and now need or want to get back in, should you: A. Go back to school and get your degree, because it will look impressive on your resume.

B. Look in the wants ads and take the first entry-level job you can find.

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C. List all your volunteer work by job (e.g., chair, flower committee).

D. None of the above.

The answer is D, according to Karen Selsor, who heads a publicly funded women's job-reentry center in Fairfax County, Va. Instead, her organization and others assisting reentry employees point to a number of ways to slide back into the work force without spending years in college.

Although most of her clients don't have ''the luxury of reentering in the traditional way - by going back to school,'' Ms. Selsor says she's not convinced that picking up a degree helps potential employees that much anyway: ''Often they'll go back and get the degree - and then take the same entry-level job they would have taken in the first place.''

Ingrid Bauer, a career counselor in northern Virginia, says that ''if you have to take an entry-level job, do it and learn from it.'' But both counselors advise that you choose that job very carefully, taking into consideration all the talents and experience you have to offer. ''I know a study that lists 88 skills used by homemakers,'' Ms. Bauer says. ''They're conflict-resolution experts, budgeters, bookkeepers, mediators in family disputes. . . . Think about what you've done at home and in volunteer work and how those skills apply in the work force.''

Ms. Selsor remembers a client who wanted to be a draftsman at an architecture firm, ''and had taken only one night course. In talking with her, we learned that she'd designed several outdoor decks for her neighbors and friends - and had designed and built a greenhouse out of old storm windows for herself. We wrote that into her resume, and it got her the job,'' she says.

Another client parlayed an ability to arrange flowers into a job with a major furniture retailer, doing arrangements for all showroom displays, Ms. Selsor recalls.

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She suggests that these skills be presented ''as skills - not as a list of what job titles you've had. Employers will take it seriously as long as you take it seriously and communicate exactly what you've been able to accomplish.''

Once you've identified ''what you really want,'' suggests Ms. Selsor, ''dream a little.'' She notes that there are any number of approaches for getting into the field of your choice.

If money is not critical and your problem is being out of touch with your field, Ms. Selsor suggests volunteering. ''We've had several women with graduate degrees in chemistry lately who have been out of the field for a dozen years,'' she says. She's helped them find volunteer jobs in chemical labs ''so they can get up to date on what's happening in their field and make valuable contacts with people - contacts that may lead to full-time employment.''

''This is a nonintimidating way to check out your interests,'' says Ms. Bauer of the volunteer job. ''It puts you into the environment so you can see if you'd enjoy working there. If you think you would, make yourself indispensable.'' The experience of the volunteer becoming paid employee is ''not uncommon,'' the counselors say.

Another route forward that does pay a little is to get an internship in your field. ''Your public library should have a list of local internships available, '' says Ms. Selsor.

Ms. Bauer, who spent four years on welfare in the state of Washington following a divorce (''it's an honorable option for those who want to stay home with their young children''), says she received ''lots of rejections'' when she first applied for internships.

An activist in women's issues in her home state, she wanted to come to Washington, D.C., ''to see how it worked,'' and she finally managed to snare an internship with the American Association of University Women which put her on Capitol Hill.

She has also worked for temporary agencies, which she recommends as ''an excellent way to find out if you like a particular office or type of work.''

Ms. Selsor says her clients have taken temporary work ''in all sorts of jobs - accounting, nursing, convention planning. Some of the agencies offer training in new equipment, which is worth looking into,'' she says.

It's also a good way to make contacts with people who are familiar with the hiring in your area. Such contacts are crucial, since most jobs are not advertised.

''Tell everyone that you're looking for a job,'' Ms. Bauer says. She has seen cases where people's children mentioned to their friends' parents that mom or dad was looking for a job, and the parent has received a job offer as a result.

Couple this with an effort to ''understand what's happening in the business community - who's getting the contracts, who's thinking of expanding,'' says Ms. Selsor. ''If you can contact a business before they start their recruiting drive , you save them time and money - and chances are you'll get the job.''

Finally, she says, don't overlook adult education. ''Once you crystallize exactly what it is you're looking for, you may find you need just one or two courses - a course in electronics or word processing - to get you into the job market.''

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