By Kimberly Palmer

Heading back into the working world after a break can make even the most self-assured person feel like the new kid on the first day of school. What should you wear? How will you explain where you've been? Will you fit in?

Debra Hamilton, 52, returned to practicing law when her husband's industry -- banking -- started looking less secure. She had spent 13 years as a full-time mom and quickly realized that landing a job wasn't going to be easy. Then Hamilton found New Directions, a program at Pace Law School for lawyers looking to rejoin the workforce. For $6,250, participants spend six months taking classes, completing an internship, and gearing up to job-hunt.

Now Hamilton works part time for clients on animal law and mediation and plans to ramp up her practice to full time over the next year. She says she couldn't have done it without the program. "I would still be trying to figure out who I needed to meet and what I wanted to do with my life," she says.

Studies suggest that the vast majority of people who drop out of the workforce to care for children eventually want to return. In a slow economy, it's a particularly difficult jump. According to the Center for Work-Life Policy, only 4 in 10 women who stop working are able to find full-time jobs again. The challenge of returning to work has spawned a mini-industry aimed at making the transition a little easier: University courses, webinars, and coaches all stand ready to sell their services. But when money and time are in short supply, which offers are worth their cost? These five investments can make the process a little less daunting.

Get coached.

Creating a new career identity can start with free self-assessments on websites such as, and coaches can help job seekers determine what type of new career they would find satisfying, says Ed Modell, president-elect of the International Coach Federation. Modell knows from personal experience: When he decided to re-enter the workforce after a prolonged absence, a coach helped him realize that he no longer wanted to practice law, but instead wanted to become a coach himself. Certified coaches, which can be found through the website, cost anywhere from $30 to $200 an hour and up.

Update your image.

An image consultant can help improve not only a wardrobe but also an overall persona, including how people speak and carry themselves, says image consultant Debra Lindquist. For clients re-entering the workforce, she often recommends updating cell phones and PDAs to look current. Professional image consultants generally cost $125 to $250 an hour; they can be found through the Association of Image Consultants International at

Go back to school.

A handful of schools offer career re-entry courses; Dartmouth and MIT offer programs for business school graduates and engineers, respectively. For the classroom experience with less commitment, webinars through companies like iRelaunch, which specializes in running programs to assist people returning to the workforce, cost around $20. Such programs teach job seekers to think strategically.

Hire résumé help.

"An objective third party who's experienced in writing résumés can often be more effective at distilling valuable expertise and presenting it in a compelling way," says workplace expert Alexandra Levit. Outsourcing the process, which costs anywhere from $100 on up, can make sense for people who'd prefer to save their energy for another part of the job-hunting process, she says.

Find friends.

Networking websites like LinkedIn can help you find out how your field is growing, downsizing, or otherwise changing. Says Levit, "People feel like they need someone to help them, but the truth is, you just need to go network with people in your industry." The cost? Not much more than coffee or a cocktail.

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