Employers Are Seeking Women Returning from Career Breaks

New services help female professionals refresh skills and find challenging positions

By Steve Bates April 6, 2017

After devoting 13 years to raising her children, Jenna Bloomgarden was ready to get back to work. Bloomgarden, who has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is a former vice president at New York City-based Merrill Lynch, hoped to find a professional position like the one she had left. Still, with a large resume gap, "I was nervous. I was scared."

She sent out application after application. Not even a nibble.

Eventually, Bloomgarden heard about a program that would help her reboot her career. The connection led to a 12-week internship with Morgan Stanley in New York City. Though she was not guaranteed a job when the internship ended, she was hired as vice president of Graystone Consulting, an institutional consulting firm and a business unit of Morgan Stanley that is headquartered just a few miles from her home in Westchester, N.Y. "I could never in a million years have gotten where I am today without that program," she said. "It gave me so much confidence."

Bloomgarden is one of millions of women with education and experience trying to get back into the workforce after a long absence related to child rearing or other family issues. The financial sector is at the forefront of the nascent effort to target women like her, fueled by the need for more diversity and by the war for talent. The trend is spreading to other industries, including technology firms, medical device manufacturers and consumer goods companies.

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In 2016, after a long career break, attorney Jennifer Gefsky co-founded New York City-based Après, an online service that helps women return to work. She estimates that there are about 3 million women seeking to resume careers after a hiatus. "The numbers are going to get bigger" as Millennial women return from breaks and employers recognize what this demographic has to offer.

Still, this group of women and the employers interested in them have had trouble connecting. Like Après, reacHIRE was created to close the gap. Based in Concord, Mass., it provides training in software, interviewing and presentation skills to prepare women to return to a professional job. Like Après, it works with employers to find good matches.

"Companies that need highly skilled employees are the most likely to do this kind of thing," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York City-based Families and Work Institute and a senior research advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Boston-based Fidelity Investments is a prime example. "Returning women have been a great source of talent for us," said Paul Lesser, Fidelity's senior vice president for HR. "It's part of our strategy" to find top talent and create a highly inclusive workforce. Lesser said that about 90 percent of the returning women his company has hired have been successful in their roles. "They bring a high level of energy and enthusiasm," he said. "This is an untapped pool that employers should absolutely consider."

"Employers are looking at more creative ways of attracting talent," said Mark Fuell, a director and a talent acquisition leader for professional services firm Ernst & Young, which also targets women returning from breaks. However, finding the best niche for returning women also takes creativity, he said. "You have to look at each individual case," said Fuell, who is based in the San Francisco area. He said his company allows returning women—and other employees—to select from a wide range of flexible work options, including condensed workweeks and remote work.

Addie Swartz, reacHIRE's CEO, says that because so much has changed in the workplace in recent years, women need help getting back to professional careers after breaks. "Even if you find the talent, you just can't insert them into today's world."

David Lewis, president and CEO of Norwalk, Conn.-based HR outsourcing firm OperationsInc., has made a habit of hiring women returning from career breaks. "In the eyes of the job market, the break they took was so long that their skills were being questioned," he said.

"Technical skills need to be addressed," agreed Fuell. But he sees that as a minor concern. "Core competencies don't really change. Being in the workforce is like riding a bike."

Engineering Successful Returns

In 2016, the Society of Women Engineers partnered with Boston-based return-to-work services firm iRelaunch to create internships for returning female engineers. More than 100 women participated, and more than 90 percent of them were hired by the companies where they interned. The program was so successful that the society is doing it again in 2017. Its industry partners include such notable employers as Ford Motor Co., Johnson & Johnson and Northrop Grumman.

In the first year of the program, "The employers saw the leadership potential in these women," said Karen Horting, the society's executive director and CEO. "The hiring managers for these women were like: 'Wow'."

Said Gefsky: "People are starting to get their heads around the idea that people take breaks and it's okay. This isn't a stigma that is going to go away overnight." Once employers understand the quality of the talent they are missing, their recruiting approach begins to change. In addition, "companies realize that hiring these women is sending a message to the rest of the organization that they care about women and families," Gefsky said.

Employers should not view hiring these women as just "a great gender play," said Swartz. "It's a great talent play."

Like Jenna Bloomgarden, Chris Williams tried traditional methods to get back to work: networking, resumes, headhunters. She even started a networking group for women, where she found that some of them settled for positions far below their previous levels. "I wanted a real job that uses my skills and abilities," said Williams, a Bostonian who has an MBA from the University of Chicago and worked for United Airlines before staying home with her children.

She saw a newspaper article about reacHIRE and signed up for a six-week training program. In late 2016, she accepted a full-time position as a credit analyst with medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific. "I don't blame employers" for missing out on so many skilled women with resume gaps, she said. Williams knows that recruiters are inundated with applications. Yet she observed: "Employers ought to be willing to look outside the norm."

Bloomgarden said that there were 23 women in her internship program at Morgan Stanley, which helped her feel comfortable with her transition back to full-time work. "It offered companionship. I'm still very close friends with two or three of them."

Going through the program "got me back in the game," she said. She hopes to see more women like her reach that same level of satisfaction. And the evidence indicates: "In some ways it's a no-brainer for employers."

Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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