When Shannan Skidmore became pregnant with her first child, she was working as a busy sales rep for an educational software company. But she knew it was only a matter of time before the realities of her job (lots of travel, lots of hours) would collide headfirst with the realities of home (husband in medical school at the University of Washington, completely dependent baby on the way). She loved her company and she believed in the product, but the requirements of her job were simply not compatible with her being the mother she wanted to be.
So she quit. But Skidmore, admittedly methodical and resourceful, quit with a plan. As she turned in her resignation following the birth of her daughter, she floated the idea of a home-based consultant position to her manager.
“I recognized that the product that they had, which was really an innovative software program for young children, was very fundable through lots of federal grants,” says Skidmore, who also has a master’s degree in English. She quickly identified the need for someone to consult with clients on grants so they could get funding to buy her company’s product. Her proposal was accepted.
“It was a small company, and there was lots of room for invention and creating your own careers, so [my manager] said, ‘Sure,’” says Skidmore. She immediately started working from home, consulting on grants and marketing materials, and eventually expanded her grant support model into an entire team of consultants.
“For being able to work at home, in my own hours, [and] basically call the shots in what kind of work I wanted to do, it was an amazing job,” she says.
Skidmore is one of a growing number of women who have opted out of the traditional full-time workweek and are now opting back in. Some women choose to stay out of the workforce for several years, if not forever. Others, like Skidmore, are out for only a short time before choosing to go back to work. But no matter how long you’re out, leaving the safety of home to jump back into the rough waters of the workforce can be intimidating. And with kids and responsibilities at home, many women are anxious to find a career that offers them some flexibility.
Luckily, the mists of change are in the air. No longer is the workweek on a mandated 9-to-5 schedule. CareerBuilder.com’s “2008 Job Forecast” reports that 60 percent of employers say they currently offer flexible arrangements, and 39 percent were planning to provide more flexible work schedules in 2008.
“It really does not appear to be a significant barrier, the fact that you’ve been out, unless you crest about 10 years,” says Beth Herrild, a partner in the career guidance company Quest for Balance and co-author of Comfortable Chaos: Forget “Balance” and Make Career and Family Choices That Work for You.
Women who have been out of the workforce for 10 years or more — or those wanting to return to a technical field — need to focus on brushing up their skills, experts say. But, they also say that moms who are relaunching shouldn’t be shy about returning to work.
“If they have the skills to do the job, then it doesn’t matter,” says Gayle Keenan, senior human resources manager at Astronics AES, an aerospace firm in Redmond that was chosen as a “most family-friendly” finalist in the Seattle Times 2007 People’s Picks awards. “They may need some retraining and updating of their skills. But … we also look for attitude, willingness to learn and the desire to learn.”
Getting on the on-ramp
One of the most important things a woman can do as she prepares to return to her career is to “just start getting out there and talking to people,” says Herrild. Former colleagues, neighbors, and friends of friends of friends who work at the company you’re interested in are all great resources. Networking not only gets your foot into a few unexpected doors, but it also helps you get a feel for the company culture — and how family-friendly it will be.
Keenan says that more than half of their new employees have come from referrals, which “speaks volumes that employees like working here,” she says.
To pump up your career search, Herrild suggests you surf Internet sites such as NWjobs.com, Monster.com and Jobdango.com for postings. Interview whenever you have the chance, even if you’re not sure the job is right for you.
“Get out there and look at it as a practice interview if nothing else,” says Herrild. “The more you’re out there and you’re talking, the more confident you’ll feel.”
Herrild says one surefire way to keep your skills in play for a return to work is to volunteer strategically in areas that utilize skills you can transfer to a career. She suggests you begin your résumé with a section highlighting your skills and then go into a chronological listing of past employment, including relevant volunteer work. But tread lightly. “It just depends on what the volunteer work was … [and] who your audience is,” she says.
Kelly Rorem of Mercer Island worked for 10 years as a full-time teacher before she quit, following the birth of her third child. During the two years she was out of the teaching profession, she volunteered at her children’s school.
“I wanted to stay current with what was happening and not get too far behind,” she says. Her volunteer work prepared her for a yearlong part-time teaching position, where she met Diana Low, a fellow teacher and mother. They enjoyed working together and had similar teaching philosophies, so Rorem and Low approached the principal with a job-share proposal.
“We were fortunate. Our principal at the time was someone who had also worked part time with her children in the school district, so she understood exactly what we were trying to accomplish,” says Rorem. Both women have been job sharing for four years now, with Low working Monday and Tuesday, Rorem taking Thursday and Friday, and both women attending meetings and handling classes on Wednesday.
“I really wish everyone who is a working mom had the opportunity to job share,” says Rorem. “It is really a gift.”
Other ways to gear up?
Read trade journals, attend conferences or take a class at a community college. Seattle Community Colleges offer worker retraining courses that can help you learn new skills or update the ones you already have. And though it might not seem like a big deal, make sure you look the part of a career woman. Herrild suggests you have at least a few up-to-date pieces of work attire in your closet, even if that means hiring an image consultant or commandeering a fashion-forward friend for a day of shopping.
Landing the job
Katie Killian, a nursing supervisor at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, graduated from nursing school when she was pregnant with her first child. Her plan was to stay home full time.
And then her baby came down with a high fever. One trip to the ER was all it took for Killian to realize how much she missed being a nurse. She began working a flextime schedule when her baby was 6 months old and has now been doing it for 17 years.
“I cannot imagine working five days a week, 9 to 5,” says Killian, who works each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Flextime “just compacts your work schedule. You do it, it’s hard physically, but then you’re done,” she says.
For Killian, proposing a creative schedule to her employer was never an issue, since nurses commonly work compacted schedules. But for others returning to the workforce, negotiating a flexible schedule can be tricky business indeed.
“Unless you’re going back to the same company that you left, it’s very difficult to step into a part-time [position] or a job share,” says Herrild. “Just know that you may have to go back full time for a period of time, but search out where you want to work by the company having good values and a good culture.”
Ann Holler, a pharmacist and mother of two in Sumner, says that a big factor for her in considering a career in pharmacy was the family-friendliness of the profession. “I was a [pharmacy] technician, and [my boss] said, ‘You know, you need to get your degree in something,’” says Holler. “He said the nice thing about pharmacy is he’s always been able to be there for his kids’ school functions, unlike a lot of other dads.”
She now works one or two 12-hour shifts each week for a company with a strong work-life balance philosophy and “an understanding of how important it is for parents to be involved with their kids’ lives,” she says.
Herrild suggests that once a company offers you a job, go ahead and take it, even if it’s a full-time position when you were hoping for more flexibility. Once you’ve accepted the job, ask if, after six months or a year, it would be possible to consider a flexible schedule of some sort. Or you could work out a deal where you trade your benefits in exchange for flexibility.
“Don’t just go by what’s offered,” says Herrild. “Get creative.” And then show your employer that you value their willingness to allow you flexibility. That may mean doing things like attending mandatory meetings, even if they don’t fall during your work hours.
“We’re flexible, but yet, the employee needs to be flexible with us,” says Keenan. After working seven years as a grant consultant — and adding three more children to her family — Shannan Skidmore has once again opted out of the workforce. She might return. She might not. She keeps her options open by working on small grants here and there and networking with educators in her children’s school district. She looks back fondly at her time as a consultant.
“I was a full-time mom, but I could step into this other role — and it didn’t matter if I was still in my slippers and pajamas — where suddenly I was smart and engaged and involved in this exciting industry that I believed in,” she says.
It’s a common theme among relaunchers: going back to work on their own terms. Maybe some slippers here, some late-night hours there, but a whole lot more quality family time everywhere — and that’s a commodity we can all opt for.
Julia Ditto is a Seattle-based freelance writer and mother of three, wife of one.
So you’ve got an interview. Now what? Experts give these guidelines for making the transition from the playroom to the boardroom:
• Before an interview, think back through your work experience to pinpoint key accomplishments and lessons learned. Then role-play possible questions and responses.
• Answer interview questions in the most professional way possible. For example: Say the interviewer asks you to explain a time you showed leadership. Don’t use an example from when you were out of the workforce unless you absolutely can’t think of a work example.
• Project confidence and be honest and succinct when you’re asked about gaps on your résumé. A simple “I took some time off to take care of my children” should suffice.
• Don’t talk too much about your children and home life.
• Don’t mention that you would like to consider a flexible work arrangement until you are being seriously considered or have been offered the job.
Family-friendly or not? Check out lists of family-friendly companies at:
Herrild and others suggest you ask these questions once you’ve been offered a job:
• What are the company’s work/life policies?
• How many employees are currently using these policies?
• Does the company have anybody working a flexible schedule?
• Are advancement decisions based on hours put in at work or on results?
• How are employee benefits structured? Resources
The Mom Economy: The Mothers’ Guide to Getting Family-Friendly Work by Elizabeth Wilcox
Back on the Career Track by Carol Cohen and Vivian Rabin
Comfortable Chaos by Carolyn Harvey and Beth Herrild
Off Ramps and On Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success by Ann Hewlett, Ph.D.
The Motherhood Manifesto by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
This is How We Do It: The Working Mothers’ Manifesto by Carol Evans
The Parents’ Guide to Family-Friendly Work by Lori K. Long, Ph.D.
Working Mother magazine
Online support and guidance:
Creative child care solutions:
Beth Herrild suggests you think outside the box when arranging childcare. Here are some ideas:
• Swap child care with a neighbor or other flextime coworker.
• Combine child care options: a couple days at daycare, one day with a neighbor, another day with a family member, and so on.
• Enroll your child in after-school sports or a study club.
• Get your child involved at a Boys and Girls Club.
• Ask a responsible older neighborhood child to come home with your child a few times a week.
• Flex your hours so you can work from home once your children return from school.
Originally published in the March, 2009 print edition of ParentMap.