Cathy Cozad was on a hunt for sea urchins.
The 34-year-old mother of two was gathering ingredients for her family's international dinner night, staged twice a month. On the menu: the food of French Guiana, where the spiny creatures are a delicacy.
"We have a jar with slips of names of countries and the kids take turns drawing from it," she explained. "They help us cook from the country, then we read a story or watch a movie based there."
Today, Cozad has less time to prowl specialty markets. After being a stay-at-home mom for three years, the biomedical engineer has recently returned to work at Boston Scientific.
"It's been great for my family to step back, but my youngest was going to kindergarten," she said. "I've had a career where I know I've made a difference and I wanted to get back to it."
Before she started her job search, Cozad needed to update her résumé. That's when she wondered how potential employers would regard her career break.
Parents (mostly women) who leave the workplace to focus on child-rearing have long struggled about how to characterize that gap in their work histories.
More than 20 years ago, the Harvard Business Review noted that women who chose the "mommy track," as it was condescendingly called then, faced career-long obstacles to professional success as a penalty for stepping away from their jobs.
But with unemployment at historically low rates, some stay-at-home parents are being actively courted by companies, which consider them an untapped pool of experienced workers. In today's competitive market, parents wanting to return to work hold more cards than the stay-at-home moms of the past.
"These women have many working years in front of them and hold a lot of potential," said Patty Carruth, director of Programs and Events at the Minnesota High Tech Association. "There is such a shortage in the labor market that hiring managers have to be more creative to broaden the number of applicants."
Filling the résumé gap
A 2015 Women in the Workplace survey from LeanIn.Org and management consultant McKinsey found that 43 percent of highly educated women leave jobs at some point to tend the home fires. According to the study, 90 percent of them want to resume working.
While the sometimes subtle bias against parents who've put their careers on pause is shrinking, addressing the hole on their résumé remains a delicate issue.
"The gap in your work history is a hurdle," said Kelly Lynch, a senior recruiter with Boston-based reacHIRE.
Her advice? "Don't hide it, explain it."
Lynch recently led a résumé-writing workshop in Maple Grove. Her company partners with local companies to recruit female candidates for mid-level to management jobs. It also offers training for candidates on how to make a successful re-entry into the workforce.
Lynch advised the prospective on-rampers to craft traditional résumés, but highlight their volunteer activities.
"Have confidence in the skills you've attained during the break," she said. "It can be uncomfortable, but you're not alone."
Many stay-at-home parents can point to impressive experience from the unpaid work that occupied them while they were away from the 9-to-5. Lynch advised them to quantify their volunteer accomplishments and translate them into transferable skills.
"Make it relevant. Position your tasks and responsibilities, especially if you held a leadership position," she added. "Find numbers and put in specifics — how many other volunteers did you train? Did you increase contributions over previous fundraising campaigns? Give results."
Beth Bauer took that advice to heart. Bauer, a Plymouth mother of three daughters, left her job five years ago. Since then, she's been busy with family duties, coaching basketball and leading Girl Scouts.
"I made sure the girls in my troops were exposed to new experiences that they might not have otherwise had," she said. "I need to work on making that pertinent in my résumé, beyond how it shows my personality."
Beware the tech gap
In addition to the commitment to raising their families, some parents step out of the workforce because of the high cost of child care. Others found themselves pushed out of a job during the layoff-heavy recession and may have stayed home for the past few years by default.
Whatever the reason for the exit, the pace of technological changes in the workplace can undermine the self-assurance of any parent staging a career comeback.
"Being away creates a gap in their tech acuity," noted Kate Muhl, principal adviser for Minneapolis-based CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insights.
"Now there's an expectation that workers will be agile on a host of platforms. They need to understand the norms of curating a career social media presence. The pace has speeded up; the workday has been reshaped. Offices look and function differently. Several revolutions may have cycled through while they were home."
Despite that, Muhl thinks that returning parents will find a more receptive environment than their mothers experienced.
"A generation ago, women had to grovel to get back, then had to neuter themselves and never mention their children. That still happens in some industries, but many women now embrace their own value and refuse to stand down."
As the gender-based nature of parenting shifts and more millennial dads seek time with children, Muhl anticipates that taking a break from work to parent will present fewer barriers. And workers with in-demand skills are more likely to be able to call their own shots.
Cozad thinks her engineering background gave her leverage when she began her job hunt. She used her cover letters to clearly state why she'd been away from her career and got only positive reactions to her résumé gap.
"I don't play it down," she said. "I want to be true to who I am and I don't need to apologize for that. When I was younger, I looked at compensation as the priority with a job; now that's a piece of the package. I want to work at a place that's flexible and understands the priorities of family."
As for her new employer? "They've laid out a warm welcome for me."
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.