(WOMENSENEWS)--After caring for her twin sons full-time for five years, last fall Meredith Soree was ready to re-enter the work force.
To find a part-time job with the flexible schedule she required to take care of her family, Soree, 37, turned to Mom Corps, an Atlanta-based flexible staffing firm. The firm helped her find her current position as a senior human resources manager for Newell Rubbermaid, where she arrives at varying times in the morning depending upon her sons' school and camp schedules and leaves at 2 p.m. each day to care for them.
"I wouldn't have found this posted somewhere," she said, attributing her new employment to Mom Corps, which she says helped her get in front of an employer who understood the importance of flexible work arrangements.
These days, women in Soree's situation have extra resources at their disposal, thanks to a cottage industry that has sprung up over the past few years of career counselors, business school courses and flexible staffing firms catering to women re-entering the work force.
Nationally, 37 percent of highly qualified women--and 43 percent of highly qualified mothers--take time off of paid work at some point in their lives, according to "Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success," a 2005 Harvard Business Review report by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy, and Carolyn Buck Luce, a senior partner at Ernst and Young. The report found that 93 percent of such women want to return to their careers, but of those, only 74 percent manage to do so.
Connecting Women to Work
But they are finding more roadside assistance while looking for the on-ramp.
"It's really remarkable, the number of organizations that are trying to help women re-enter the work force," said Constance Helfat, faculty director of Back in Business, an 11-day program run by Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business to prepare professionals to rejoin the labor market.
Helfat said the burgeoning industry of niche career coaches and flexible staffing firms remains small, characterized by small companies, sole practitioners and nonprofit organizations often led by women who recognize the value of the business opportunity.
One Denver-based firm, 10 til 2--named for the hours when many moms are available to work--was founded in 2003 to match companies with part-time staffers and has already expanded into 20 franchises in 11 states.
Experts say the lagging economy is driving a demand for such workers.
"Companies are very reticent to add to head count and there are hiring freezes, so many positions are unfilled, but the work loads are still there," said Nadine Mockler, co-founder of Flexible Resources, a Stamford, Conn., staffing firm specializing in nontraditional work arrangements whose majority of clients are mothers.
More Moms Than Flexible Jobs
Still, owners of flexible staffing firms say the interest from moms in part-time work, consultant contracts and other forms of nontraditional employment continues to outpace the demand from employers.
"My message to the women out there is to be patient," said Allison O'Kelly, CEO of Mom Corps. Since the company launched in 2005, 25,000 women have registered to work on its Web site; several hundred have been placed in employment.
One factor driving the demand is the greater number of highly educated women. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Education report, the percentage of master's degrees in business management earned by women rose from almost 4 percent in 1969-1970 to 41 percent in 2000-2001. In the same time period, the percentage of law degrees earned by women rose from around 5 percent to 47 percent.
For highly qualified women, the decision to take time off from paid work is costly; the Harvard report found that "off-ramping" for three to four years costs such women 37 percent of their earning power. In March, the difficult decision grabbed headlines with the publication of Meg Wolitzer's novel, "The Ten-Year Nap," which portrays successful women who, 10 years after deciding to stay home with their children, question their choices.
Business schools like Helfat's are also stepping in to fill the need.
Last year, for example, Swiss financial giant UBS began funding a free "Career Comeback" program to help professional women sharpen their business skills and networks. The two- to three-day course is now offered at the Australian Graduate School of Management, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, London School of Economics, Singapore Management University and Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2006, Harvard Business School launched "A New Path," a $5,000 weeklong program to prepare women to re-enter the work force.
Dipping Into Moms' Labor Pool
Large companies--especially in the financial sector--are increasingly recognizing the value of the labor pool of highly qualified women who take time off; Deloitte and Touche, Goldman Sachs, Ernst and Young, Lehman Brothers and PricewaterhouseCoopers have all developed programs to recruit them back.
But the Harvard report found that just 5 percent of highly qualified women want to return to their previous employers, a finding some researchers say indicates that they left feeling "underutilized and underappreciated."
Nancy Collamer, a career coach in Old Greenwich, Conn., who specializes in helping moms re-enter the work force, said most of her clients end up freelancing, consulting or crafting agreements with small businesses because the full-time corporate jobs they are offered are not flexible enough.
"These women look at the jobs out there and say they don't want to work 60 hours a week," she said.
Founders of flexible staffing firms say the Internet has radically changed the nature of work, making it possible to craft more flexible arrangements such as work from home, but it's a matter of persuading companies to allow it.
O'Kelly, of Mom Corps, said companies are starting to change and she expects flexible work arrangements to become more common, thanks to the path moms are trailblazing.
"Technology enables us to have more flexibility, and now that the tools are there, people are demanding it," she said. "Right now it's the moms out there who are really saying they need it."
Kara Alaimo is a New York-based writer.
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