Back to Work: How “Returnships” Underestimate Moms’ and Dads’ Skills

Leadership
BY ERUM KIGER

I recently read an article about Nancy Pelosi and was surprised to learn that she did not begin her political career until she was in her mid-forties. What was Nancy doing before she entered politics? She was a stay at home mom, very busy having and raising 5 children. Whatever you may think of Nancy, it’s pretty astounding that one of the most influential women in the ultimate boys’ club was a stay at home mom for almost two decades!

Although Nancy exemplifies what stay at home moms can achieve, the road back to the workforce for stay at home moms who have taken a “pause” in their career is not an easy one. And while I am referring to stay at home moms—they are statistically more likely to pause their careers for caregiving duties—stay at home dads face the same challenges when they seek to return to work.

 

“The high cost of childcare, fear of guilt, and crucially the ‘ideal worker norm’ are all reasons women feel compelled to opt out or take a pause.”

 

A recent study showed that stay at home parents turned jobseekers are only half as likely to get a call back from a job opening as those who do not take a career break. It is not surprising that parents who have paused their careers to provide caregiving find the job search process so daunting.

With the current crunch for talent, is your company overlooking an under-appreciated, well-qualified talent pool, and missing out on diversity of thought, gender and generation? Presently, the unemployment rate in the US is 3.7% – the lowest in years. Companies are fighting over the same candidates when they could be opening their doors to experienced workers who bring a variety and depth of skills, built through their overall professional and personal life experiences.

By some estimates, more than 50% of women are opting out of the workforce once they have kids. While it is important to respect the choices (not to mention the privilege) of being able to opt out, it is also important to understand the reasons. The high cost of childcare, fear of guilt, and crucially the “ideal worker norm” are all reasons women feel compelled to opt out or take a pause.

I know a little about this conundrum, as I took over a decade out from a successful career in high tech to be a stay at home mom. Fast forward to today and I consider myself fortunate to have landed a challenging role and the opportunity to do meaningful work with my current employer. The leaders of Future State Consulting, a women-led, employee-owned and purpose-driven consulting firm, understood that my career break did not make me any less qualified as an employee.

In fact, I would argue, as Nancy Pelosi does, that parents who have been primary caregivers offer certain advantages and skill sets that companies should not overlook.

Have you ever heard the adage “if you want something done, ask a busy person”? Find me a stay at home mom who isn’t a master at multi-tasking, time management, and resource planning! In my pre-pause working life, I worked long hours but found time to chat with co-workers or socialize in other ways. The post-pause me is focused on making every minute count. As a working mom, I know that I am more efficient and use my time much more effectively. Time becomes even more valuable when away from your family, so you make every minute count.

Effective communication and negotiation skills with clients and colleagues are a piece of cake compared to communicating with toddlers and negotiating with tweens and teens. And chances are, in my current client facing role, I am unlikely to come across clients that are more demanding than the 3 kids whose needs and whims I have spent the last decade catering to.

 

“In fact, I would argue, as Nancy Pelosi does, that parents who have been primary caregivers offer certain advantages and skill sets that companies should not overlook.”

 

I would also contend that post-pause me is a better team player. As a stay at home mom, relying on the “village” is a key part of being able to balance multiple, often competing responsibilities (and to stay sane!). The willingness and ability to help each other at the drop of a hat makes us the consummate team players. A key desired trait in the modern worker is empathy and we have it in spades. And in over a decade, there was no such thing as having a “sick day”—our ability to push through pain is second to none.

If you think that taking a career pause makes you rusty or will mean a longer ramp up or onboarding timeframe than a traditional candidate, then think again! In her book, “Work Pause Thrive” author Lisen Stromberg points out that within the first 6 months of returning to the workforce after a pause, two-thirds of people are back to, or above the level in their career pre-pause.

The Future of Work includes many new ways of working. According to a 2017 Gallup survey, some 43% of workers now work remotely at least some of the time. Millennials have driven the rise of the gig economy, remote work is increasing, and the “ROWE” (results only work environment”) over the “ideal worker norm” are obvious signals that professionals who felt a need to opt out because of rigid work frameworks now have options to return to the workforce and contribute their talents to help the economy. The proliferation of technology around virtual employee collaboration and communication means that work can be done anytime, anywhere. While transitioning to a 100% ROWE management system may not be the right solution for every company, it is very apparent that the “ideal worker norm” is changing. Companies that can successfully look beyond traditional work structures, and thus be open to hiring from a more varied, diverse pool of candidates, can use this to their advantage, as the current crunch for talent doesn’t seem to be easing up anytime soon.

Leading companies like Google, Pay Pal, Charles Schwab, and many others, offer “returnships” to highly skilled workers looking to re-enter the workforce after pausing their careers for caregiving duties. These highly sought-after positions offer a structured, but often lower paid, 3-6 month program of mentoring and training. Following this period, some work returnees may be offered full-time employment. While certainly a step in the right direction, and an acknowledgment of the existence of this overlooked highly skilled talent pool, you don’t need a formal program to start attracting these resources. You just need to give them a shot, interview them, acknowledge their overall experience, and hire them when they are the best person for the job.