August 18th, 2010 | 6:00 am

The Benefits of Hiring Women Returning from a Career Break

filed under Returners

Businesswoman using smart phoneContributed by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin

In the June issue of INC Magazine, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is interviewed about a range of topics relating to managing and motivating employees. When asked at the end of the interview:

“If you were starting a company today, what would you do to create the best possible workplace?”

Chouinard gave an incredibly powerful response:

“…..I would search out older women as employees. Ones that have already raised families and are looking for something to do. These people have lived with a budget. They are aggressive. They are honest. You can’t find better employees. They are one of the most underused resources in America.”

Chouinard is widely admired as a true visionary among CEOs. His progressive policies toward flextime expressed by his book title Let My People Go Surfing pretty much sums up his philosophy:

“All I care about is that the job gets done and the work is excellent. If you come in at 7 at night because you want to go surfing at 2 in the afternoon, that is fine with me. But it can’t impact your fellow worker.” His workforce is 75% women, he established one of the early on-site childcare centers and he is famously dedicated to environmental causes both in action and through his policy of donating 1% of sales to them.

Here at iRelaunch we couldn’t agree more with Chouinard’s assessment of the pool of talent on career break, which is predominantly female. Women in this pool often have strong educational credentials, significant work experience, a high energy level, and unbeatable enthusiasm about returning to work precisely because they’ve been away from it for a while. They just can’t wait to get back. Plus, think about their life stage – fewer or no maternity leaves (they’ve done that already if that’s why they took a career break), fewer spousal relocations, and a more mature perspective.

As we like to say, “relaunchers” as we call them, are not trying to “find themselves” at an employer’s expense. They are more grounded than the new graduate and are actually better candidates for positions requiring an advisory, consultative approach.

As for perceived challenges in hiring relaunchers, from our extensive conversations with employers, we have identified three:

1) Concern #1: Relaunchers are technologically obsolete.

Our Response: We believe that technological obsolescence is a temporary issue. Having been technologically obsolete at one point ourselves, we know that it’s possible to get up to speed on common office technology, like Excel, Powerpoint, and Word. Same with social media. We are blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and LinkingIn with the best of them. We recommend relaunchers take a course, ask the teenager down the street (or their own, if they have one), or find a tutor. But once they’ve taken the time to update themselves, “technological obsolescence” should no longer be a concern. We’ve also seen relaunchers get updated in far more complex technologies.

2) Concern #2: Relaunchers are not sure what they want to do

Our Response: A career assessment is a must for every relauncher to determine whether their interests and skills have changed or have not changed during the time they have been on career break. The longer a relauncher has been on career break the more important this is. In our book Back on the Career Track, we recommend a career assessment exercise using what we call the Job Building Blocks Worksheet. In this exercise, relaunchers break down prior work and volunteer experiences into their component parts, or “what they actually did,” identify the components they liked and were good at, then use those favorite component parts as “building blocks” to think about what new jobs or career paths would be a fit for them based on their prior experiences.

In any case, we encourage recruiters and hiring managers to ask relaunchers in the interview if they have done any kind of career assessment. If they have not, then they should at least have a good answer to the question, such as “I didn’t think I needed to do a career assessment, because I loved my job at X, was very good at it and know that I want to do something similar.”

3) Concern #3: The relauncher’s rate of ramp up once on the job is hard to predict.

Our Response: Uncertainty about the rate of ramp up could be a concern with any hire as both the employer and the employee are not in a position to accurately estimate it. The perception with a relauncher is that the ramp up time is even tougher to predict. The solution? We recommend early and frequent reviews beginning six months after the start date and every six months for the first two years thereafter so job duties and compensation can be recalibrated if necessary.

Nothing proves Chouinard’s point more strongly than real return to work success stories. We have hundreds of these, in all fields and work configurations. Judge for yourself:

Sara Harnish, Assistant Director for Non-clinicial Research, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Hina McCree, Software Engineer, Raytheon BBN Technologies
Marsha Besley-Connelan, Founder and President,  Marina Medical Billing Service
Belinda Nanda, Applications Analyst, NorthShore University Healthsystem

For many more relaunch success stories and tools and resources on returning to work after a career break, please see iRelaunch.com.

Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin are co-authors of the career reentry strategy book Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work, and the co-founders of iRelaunch, a career reentry programming company. iRelaunch is running its signature event, the iRelaunch Return to Work Conference in NYC hosted by NYU/Stern on October 4 and in London hosted by London Business School on November 2.  Carol and Vivian can be reached at [email protected].

6 comments

  1. Nirmala Menon

    Having relaunched myself after a 5 year break, I fully agree that these were the concerns I had to address as I rejoined the workforce. What helped was my eagerness and willingness to learn – I remember I was as excited as a fresh grad on her first job! Channelising this energy well is the challenge for the organisation. The first manager’s role is critical – he/she can build confidence and sustain the energy or can insensitively demolish it at this vulnerable stage.

  2. Barbara

    I re-laiunched by going back to school after raising a family for 10 years and utilized those resources to do internships so that I was prepared to re-enter the work place once I graduated. I also learned all the new technologies. I believe it was my sense of organization, willingness to work hard and excitement about being back in the work force that got me my job. After 5 years I have a solid reputation and am getting ready to make a change, so I went back to school for graduate work (paid for by my employer) to help me with the next step. I may have taken longer, but one of my greatest assets is patience!

  3. Debra Feldman, JobWhiz, Executive Talent Agent

    Reading this and the comment reminded me that relaunchers should not be asked to explain or feel compelled to excuse their career choice which included a sabbatical for family care. They are not really different from their peers who may not take a career break but who veer off course or wend their way collecting experience and developing new expertise. Who, after all, ends their career where they started or in the field they studied in college or even grad school? Isn’t it human nature to explore different paths and seize a variety of opportunities- some paid and others as a volunteer or full-time family caregiver? In fact, these “choices” are not always elected but are forced on us or evolve out of circumstances, need or serendipity.

    If we were to analyze the career choices of everyone, not just relaunchers, we would realize that a typical path usually includes experiences that are not linear. It’s not unusual even for those who remain in the workforce full time and do not take a break, to experiment, albeit often unintentionally, with a variety of roles and responsibilities in different industries. Then after a while, examining their work history or resume demonstrates how they purposefully chose to return to a previous area of expertise periodic change or renewal is their pattern.

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