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Companies have begun luring stay-at-home parents back into the workforce -- but some are encountering resistance from hiring managers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008
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Shortly after discovering she was pregnant with her first child, Tina Swenson began to feel the pull to be a stay-at-home mom, even though she loved her job. But, having spent seven years at the San Diego office of professional-services firm Deloitte LLP working her way up to manager, Swenson didn't want to sacrifice her forward momentum.

In the back of her mind, she remembered a program the firm had piloted just the year before -- "Personal Pursuits," which allows Deloitte employees to opt out of the workforce for one to five years while staying up-to-date on their profession, legislation and other critical matters through Deloitte-sponsored training and online resources.

That facet was particularly appealing to Swenson, a CPA required to complete 40 hours of continuing education each year to retain her license. She broached the subject with her managing partner, as well as the regional HR director, both of whom agreed to accept her as a Personal Pursuits participant.

According to Deloitte Vice Chairman and Chief Talent Officer Cathy Benko, the company launched Personal Pursuits in 2004 out of concern that women who opt out of the workforce to raise their families often have a difficult time < opting back in.

According to the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy, 93 percent of highly qualified, educated women want to return to work after taking time off to raise a family, but only 75 percent actually find a job, with just 40 percent returning to full-time work.

By enrolling in Personal Pursuits, Swenson hopes to be part of that 40 percent. As part of the program, she flew to Texas last year at Deloitte's expense to attend the firm's annual national weeklong training seminar -- the exact same training she would have received as a full-time Deloitte employee.

Personal Pursuits participants also may take on "non-time-sensitive project work," which Benko dubs "kitchen-table work" because "it makes a difference and adds value, but it could be done at midnight at the kitchen table, as opposed to in the office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m." Such assignments not only help participants keep their skills fresh, she says, but also provide much-needed supplemental income. Deloitte is hardly alone in its efforts:

According to new survey of 100 HR professionals conducted by Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 23 percent consider stay-at-home parents to be valuable targets in their recruiting efforts.

It's all about meeting demand, says Fran Luisi, a principal at Charleston Partners, a Rumson, N.J.-based executive search firm that exclusively recruits HR professionals. Increasingly, he says, companies are looking to stay-at-home parents as replacements for retiring baby boomers and in response to global expansion.

"It falls under the umbrella of creative and innovative talent-acquisition strategies," says Luisi. "These people might have taken X number of years off,

but they also bring some real nice history and very strong competencies required for a particular assignment."

Yet, despite the enthusiasm on the part of some HR professionals, many employers still view the idea of recruiting stay-at-home parents with skepticism because of the amount of time they've spent away from the workforce. And companies that do pursue the stay-at-home population may need to address concerns from their managers and, in some cases, their customers about the returning workers' qualifications after their long absence from the job.

Lapsed Skills?

Unlike Deloitte, many companies don't even consider the stay-at-home population as part of their recruiting efforts. That can make matters difficult for organizations such as Milwaukee-based Manpower Inc., which has begun tapping into the stay-at-home population to meet its clients' staffing needs. No matter how qualified the individual, placing a returning stay-at-home parent with a client can be a hard sell.

"If we are trying to sell someone who has been out of the workforce for a period of time, we have to convince the client of what they bring to the table, based on their past experience," says Diane Hunt-Cook, a Manpower regional director. "Still, they will counter with, 'These people have been out of the market for years; we really want somebody who's been working.' "

At the heart of their concerns are skills that may have lapsed during an individual's stay-at-home years. That's more of an issue for some industries and occupations than for others. In sales, says Hunt-Cook, even a significant amount of time away from the job might not be all that harmful as long as the individual still has the "fire and passion."

When it comes to more technical positions, any length of time away from the profession is likely to be detrimental to the person's future job prospects.

"There's a hesitancy in the high-tech industries to consider this population, because if you're a computer programmer and you're out for five years, you're coming back in as a programmer of languages that could very well not be used anymore," says Julie Lenzer Kirk, author of The ParentPreneur Edge: What Parenting Teaches about Building a Successful Business, and president of Path Forward International, an entrepreneurial and leadership consulting firm in Damascus, Md.

Still, some industries appear especially receptive to hiring stay-at-home parents. In the healthcare industry, where the talent shortage has already hit critical mass, a growing number of hospitals and universities have begun offering re-entry programs to help nurses who've been away from clinical practice for a number of years brush up on their skills and get back in the workforce.

Since its inception in the fall of 2000, approximately 150 nurses have re-entered the workforce through Atlanta-based Emory Healthcare's program. 

According to Carolyn Talentino, the program's education coordinator for nursing education, Emory's program is open to nurses who haven't worked in direct patient care in the in-patient setting for at least four years. Once they're accepted into the program, the nurses are hired as full-time employees.

Their first four weeks on the job are spent on a combination of classroom learning and practical clinical experience working alongside a nurse preceptor. After they've successfully completed the program, the nurses are expected to work at the hiring unit for one to two years.

So far, 88 percent of participants have completed the program successfully. Overall, 56 percent of them continue to work for Emory -- some as many as seven years later. While Emory does not specifically offer incentives to lure nurses into the program, Talentino says the fact that the program is offered free of charge -- and with the guarantee of a job -- is incentive enough.

"Other programs require the participant to pay to attend the program, to pay for their own textbooks, and do not guarantee a job upon completion," says Talentino. "Our program hires the participants, so that not only do they not pay any fees, but they also receive a salary and are benefits-eligible from day one."

The program's original target audience was stay-at-home moms interested in returning to the workforce. These days, Talentino says, roughly half of all program participants fall into that category. On average, participants have been away from in-patient care for four years. However, Talentino says, some participants have returned to nursing after being away for as long as 20 years.

At Deloitte, participants in its Personal Pursuits program aren't required to partake of any of its training and recertification offerings. However, those who are serious about returning to work -- either at Deloitte or elsewhere -- would be well-advised to do so, Benko says.

"It's available to them, but at the end of the day, it's their choice whether or not they take advantage of it," she says. "We have many positions in our firm that need to be licensed, so it's not a tough issue for those people because skills training and the like are all part of keeping their professional accreditation current."

After at least one year has passed, Personal Pursuits participants are welcome to begin looking for ways to come back to Deloitte. Since they have technically resigned from the firm, Benko is quick to point out that Deloitte does not guarantee them a job when they're ready to come back. However, those who've kept their skills fresh and their licensing up-to-date are likely to be highly desirable candidates.

"They are very attractive to us, and we are highly interested when they're ready to return to the marketplace," she says. To date, Deloitte has enrolled 65 employees in the program, which is currently in operation only in Deloitte's U.S. operations. Because Personal Pursuits is so new, none of the participants have returned to the firm yet, says Benko. 

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A "Push/Pull"

New York-based Lehman Brothers began taking a closer look at the stay-at-home population in 2005 when it, along with several dozen other companies, was invited to participate in the "Hidden Brain Drain Taskforce," led by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success and president of the Center for Work/Life Policy. That experience led Lehman to hold a day-long event called "Encore" in November 2005.

The firm brought in a group of women, most of them referred by Hewlett. Nearly all had worked in investment banking before -- some at Lehman -- and all were currently out of the workforce. Lehman HR staff assisted them in updating their resumes and brushing up on their interviewing skills. Ten Encore participants were hired by Lehman. Today, there are 35 Encore hires working at the firm.

According to Hilary Stark, Lehman's Encore program manager, it can be a challenge convincing hiring managers to give a returning parent a shot.

"There's always a push/pull between hiring someone already doing the same job at another firm and an Encore candidate who may have been out of the workforce for a period of time, but whose different outlook and perspective adds value of a whole other kind," she says. "Our job is to convince them that having a different background and a different perspective will actually be beneficial in the long run."

Stark and her team encourage hiring managers to look deeper and ask returning parents about the activities they undertook during their years away from the workforce.

"Our hiring managers all know they need to talk about what the candidates have been doing over the past X number of years in addition to the professional work they did," she says. "Very few of these people did not stay engaged. They are very career-oriented, driven individuals who, even in their non-revenue-generating years, continued to do important things."

Lehman continues to hold its annual Encore event each fall. Interest was so high this past year that attendance had to be capped at 66, less than half of those who sought to attend. For the most part, Encore participants come in as referrals from Lehman employees.

For other organizations, identifying stay-at-home parents who are ready to return to the workforce isn't so easy. Manpower's Hunt-Cook believes that's because people who've spent a number of years out of the workforce may not be as comfortable with today's primary method of sourcing candidates -- namely, the Internet -- than with more traditional job-hunting methods such as networking.

That means recruiters may have to be creative. "The question becomes, 'How do you get in front of them?' " says Hunt-Cook. "Many of these people have a tendency to go to their comfort level. A lot of times, that's community or church-related organizations, so we try to become keynote speakers or sponsor workshops like 'How to Write a Resume' in order to tap these people."

Because few employers have formal programs for recruiting from the stay-at-home ranks, they often rely on companies such as HR Optin, an Atlanta-based organization that matches potential employers with HR professionals who've been out of the workforce.

According to Monique Dearth, HR Optin's president, there may be a few areas that need updating after a number of years away from the profession -- changes in the Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, but "if you're a great HR person, you're a great HR person."

One organization that was willing to give one of Dearth's HR people a try was the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society. Following a realignment of its HR function, the nonprofit found itself in need of someone to serve as managing director of total rewards.

Having met Dearth through a mutual acquaintance in the HR profession, Chief Talent Officer Laura Reeves began to explore the possibility of having someone opt back into the workforce at her organization. Consequently, the organization ended up hiring a man who had taken time off to be a stay-at-home dad -- and Reeves says she couldn't be happier with the decision.

"This is an element of the workforce that is just as skilled and prepared as any other type of labor," she says. "Not considering this group of people would be leaving off an important segment of the talent pool."

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