How to Get Back to Work After an Extended Leave

Payroll specialists take leaves of absence for various reasons — raising young children, caring for aging parents or going back to school, for example. If you're one of many professionals who has taken such an off-ramp, it's natural to have questions and even some anxiety about getting back into the swing of a full-time job — not to mention finding new employment.

The good news is that, unlike a decade ago, the job market for payroll professionals has been thriving the last few years and shows no signs of stopping. Demand is still high as companies grow and seek more skilled employees to administer payroll, handle reimbursements and withholdings, generate reports, and help maintain compliance.

At the same time, it's normal to feel hesitant about diving back in. Is your skill set out of date? How do you talk with potential employers about your time away? Does anyone even want to hire you when you've been out of the game? Spoiler alert: They do. And these seven tips can help you successfully restart your payroll career:

1. Rediscover the requirements for payroll jobs. If you've been away for a year or more, be prepared for significant shifts in accounting technology when you return to work. The essentials of the position remain more or less the same, but the tools are continually upgraded. Cloud-based platforms are the norm now, including QuickBooks, ADP, Paylocity and Workday. Excel still reigns for spreadsheets, although many companies have moved away from desktop versions and use cloud-based Office 365. To see what other new software employers are using, peruse job postings. Then study up so you can talk about them in an informed manner.

2. Get up to speed on legislation. Tax codes and payroll-related compliance requirements change every year. Catch up by reading trade magazines, industry blogs and payroll newsletters. If you've let your membership in a professional associations lapse, rejoin so you can access their informative articles, webinars, courses and conferences.

3. Take advantage of LinkedIn. Reconnect with former colleagues and letting them know you're re-entering job market. Be sure to update your social media profile and work history. As you re-establish relationships, ask trusted acquaintances for endorsements and recommendations. Boost your reputation by joining groups and participating in online discussions. The more visible you are, the easier it is for recruiters and prospective employers to find you.

4. Revamp your resume. If it's been a long time since you've been working, you may wonder what your accounting resume should look like. Make sure it's is written for applicant tracking systems (ATS) as well as human readers. This means rather than having one generic resume, you need to customize it for each position. Scan the job post for keywords and use them organically in your application materials to maximize search-friendly language and terminology. For example, "payroll hotshot" doesn't mean much to talent management software, but "ADP specialist" and "multi-state and Canada experience" does.

5. Include non-paid work experience. Some hiring managers see gaps in employment history as a red flag. To lessen that kind of impact over an extended leave of absence, list volunteer work that shines a spotlight on your accounting skills, organizational abilities or leadership traits. These could include heading up a community fundraiser or serving as treasurer for a parent-teacher organization.

6. Focus on your added value. Prospective employers don't want a long-winded justification about why you off-ramped. They want to know that you can handle the demands of the job. So whether you're writing a cover letter or interviewing for a position, address your time away head-on — but don't dwell on it. Keep the focus on how you've stayed active professionally, how you've kept current with regulations and industry software, and why you're the best person for the job.

7. Go back gradually. Consider easing back into the workforce with temporary or part-time jobs. Besides offering greater flexibility, working as a temp allows you to re-acclimate after a long hiatus.

Let's say you were a payroll administrator but quit your job five years ago to raise a child. To ramp back up, you could accept a few short-term assignments through a specialized staffing agency like Robert Half. This approach allows you to learn the latest software and get up to speed on legislation, all while sampling various industries. What's more, a significant percentage of contract work results in an offer for full-time employment.

The bottom line is that if you take the time to do ample research, upgrade your resume and spruce up your social media presence, you'll clear most obstacles to your transition back to work. Then you can get ready for the next chapter in your payroll career.

This article was first published on the Robert Half International blog. Accountemps, a Robert Half company, is the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals. Accountemps has 300 locations worldwide. More resources, including job search services and the Accountemps blog, can be found at