Miranda Irving

(WOMENSENEWS)–Standing in line at a local post office, I notice an advertisement on the wall. It reads: “Counter Clerks required. Hours to suit. Competative rates. Apply within.”

Barely resisting the urge to correct the spelling, I briefly consider applying. It would mean a regular–undoubtedly small–income and could fit around the children’s school times. But would it offer prospects for personal development? Would my education and training go to waste? Or should I wait for a more suitable vacancy?

It is an all-too familiar dilemma. I am a social science graduate, trained in journalism and basic counseling with experience of office work, writing and social research. My career path was rosy before I married, moved overseas, became a “trailing spouse” and mother of two. Middle-aged and back in Britain, I want to get back to work. I would like to use and develop the skills I once worked so hard to gain, while earning a little income, but I do not wish to compromise my family in the process.

A local, 9-2, part-time job would be ideal, but these are not easy to find. Every week I scan the local papers. The selection is poor: most part-time posts are low-skilled, low-pay positions in call centers, supermarkets, doctors’ surgeries or school kitchens. With few alternatives, jobs like these are in high demand in my area of Hampshire and competition is fierce. To broaden my options, I also look on the Web for vacancies in universities, local government or publishing, but very few openings are part-time and even fewer fit my background.

Over the past year, I have only found 20 suitable positions. I target my applications carefully, selecting those for which I am suitably experienced and which I think I stand a chance of getting. But I have met with little success. Most recently, I applied for a job as an exam proctor at a local school, yet despite previous experience I was not even short listed for interview.

I am not a great prospect for employers. With an unfinished PhD and gaping gaps in my resume due to motherhood and six years abroad, I seem to be a poor choice for the higher level jobs, yet my academic achievements make me over-qualified for the rest. I don’t seem to fit anywhere and it is frustrating. After 23 years in education–all at the expense of the British taxpayer–I want to give something back to the economy, but what job can I do? Who will employ me? And does it have to be at the expense of my family?

‘Wasted Economic Resource’

In February last year I wrote an e-mail to the government department of work and pensions, detailing the problems I had encountered in finding appropriate part-time work and pointing out that people like me represented a wasted investment and economic resource.

In reply, I was given an appointment at a local job center, a government-funded employment agency. They confirmed what I already knew: “We can only help you look for opportunities; we cannot create them,” the career adviser told me, shaking her head sympathetically. She looked at my resume, gave me a few handouts and highlighted some Web sites. There was a job out there for me somewhere, she said, encouragingly, perhaps I would consider working full-time?

A regular job–if I could get it–would mean compromising what I believe to be right for my children. The government frequently states that parents should take more responsibility for their children, but how can this be done if neither parent is at home? Surely a greater variety of part-time opportunities with more prospects for individual progression after children have left home, would offer the best solution, both socially and economically?

Overqualified for the Checkout Line

Sadly, my experience is not unique. One friend of mine, a single mom and ex-teacher with a postgraduate degree, told me that she applied to work in a supermarket check-out but was informed she was too highly qualified. Those who do manage to get family-friendly employment are further penalized by low pay, minimal training and poor future prospects.

There is a general lack of quality part-time work available throughout the country. This means that women’s skills are being seriously underutilized, according to a government-commissioned report on women and work. Women “face substantial penalties, in terms of pay and progression” for taking time out of the labor market or reducing their hours to care for others says the report. It estimates that increasing women’s participation in the labor market could be worth up to $44.6 billion for the U.K. economy.

Another recent government-funded study found that women with children are one of the most disadvantaged groups in terms of employment prospects in this country, being almost 40 percent less likely to get a job than the average white, able-bodied man.

In response, services and Web sites specializing in the promotion of part-time employment have sprung up over the past year and the British government plans to launch localized schemes to increase the number of senior and quality part-time jobs available. This would at least allow a greater range of opportunities for moms like me.

Meanwhile, flexibility and working-from-home make self-employment an attractive alternative.

Though government figures show that levels of female entrepreneurship still lag behind the United States, nearly one million women are now self-employed in the United Kingdom. But there are downsides: irregular income, no sick leave or holiday cover, and for small-scale one-person businesses the returns are not always high for the hours put in.

There can be other costs too. A recent study for the business directory Yellow Pages, found that nearly a quarter of business moms say they struggle to make quality time with their partner and almost half complain they lack time to cope with household chores.

Finding the right balance is not easy, but I remain hopeful that one day I will find the right solution. In the meantime, I will continue to scratch a sporadic income from freelance writing and will keep scanning the want ads.

Miranda Irving is a freelance writer and social researcher. She is editor of the U.K. pages of an expatriate women’s Web site http://www.expatwomanuk.com and her work has appeared in U.K. publications such as The Guardian as well as Gulf News in the UAE.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

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“Women Happier as Homemakers? Time to Recheck Data”: