Writer and Editor, Korn Ferry Institute
This Week in Leadership
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By: Annamarya Scaccia
It's early in the morning, and Margaret Seery is standing in front of the mirror, thinking about what to wear. She has stood in this spot so many times before, but today feels different. It is different.
For more than 20 years, Seery had worked in the tech sector, steering projects, running labs, and leading teams. But she took a hiatus at the turn of the century to raise her three kids. Now, after 19 years, it’s her first day back to work, and the 61-year-old mom is feeling excited—“like a kid on their first day of first grade,” she says. “I was so ready to go back to work. I felt the moment coming while my son was in middle school.”
So what she did go with? A pair of black pencil-leg pants and a simple tangerine sweater—a welcome change from two decades of “mom” clothes, she says.
Across the United States and beyond, days like these have finally arrived. More and more, women who took hiatuses from the workforce are getting back in the game. Many have children now in college, others have recovered from chronic illnesses, and some are going through major life shifts such as divorce or struggling with healthcare costs.
Whatever the reason, the numbers are substantial. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women over the age of 55 accounted for more than 17 million workers as of February—a 4.2 percent increase from that time last year. That’s more than double the percentage increase for women employed across all age groups as of earlier this year, meaning the share of older women in the workforce is now more than a third of the female labor force, its highest level in a decade. Experts say the increase is due in part to women coming off of hiatus.
Given that study after study has shown that companies with more women leaders in all roles perform better than those that are less diverse, this return offers firms the opportunity many know they need. At the same time, though, organizations are still grappling with how to properly train and place anyone who has been on a long hiatus. Some struggle to see past the gap on the resume of someone once so high up; others are tapping into so-called “returnship” programs. But, as it was for Seery, it can be exciting either way.
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“It’s challenging to tap into this talent pool,” says Addie Swartz, CEO and founder of reacHIRE, a career reentry start-up. “Returners are not the average person.”
If you ask any “returner,” they’ll tell you the same thing: the qualifications of those who are relaunching their careers appear to be under stricter scrutiny. Hiring managers, they say, seem more skeptical of their professional ability because their gap is treated as a siphon of their capabilities.
After all, when Seery first took her break, Facebook didn’t exist, everyone still had Yahoo! email addresses, and Amazon was just an online marketplace. She left during the advent of the digital age, and now she’s returning in the thick of it.
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But Seery, who’s also a marathon runner, kept up with new technologies during her time off. She’s a telecom engineer by trade and served as a volunteer tech administrator for school committees. She also led fund-raising projects and organized charity events, among other tasks, all while caring for her three children.
Yet recruiters often dismiss skills developed outside of the workplace, even though “we know that the lessons that people glean and the learning agility people can develop can happen through either personal or professional experiences,” says Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute.
Whether true or not, a prevailing—if unconscious—belief among organizations is that women who are reentering the workforce won’t have the technological or professional acumen they need to perform on the job. Too much time has passed, hiring managers may think, and too much has changed.
Videoconferencing had just begun to emerge in the workplace when Seery paused her career; now it’s one of the most common ways to communicate across teams. Working from home was hardly allowed; now entire businesses run virtual offices. Coworkers mostly talked to each other over the phone if not face-to-face; now there are sardonic memes about meetings that could’ve been email chains.
“That’s a big hurdle,” says Suparna Vashisht, cofounder of Women Back to Work, a California-based program that advocates for and supports women returners. “They’re not even given a fair chance to present their case.”
Of course, there are bound to be gaps. Research shows that there is an 18-month life cycle on tech skills, and that data is playing out in the workplace: according to a 2019 Korn Ferry survey, 67 percent of hiring professionals said they’ve had to lay people off because their roles became irrelevant.
But experts say the women who are returning to work are usually far more technologically savvy than organizations give them credit for—and research proves it. According to the “Women on the Rise” survey conducted as part of journalist Lisen Stromberg’s 2017 book Work Pause Thrive, more than half of women who took a career hiatus lasting six years or longer said they were in full swing in fewer than six months. More broadly, 69 percent of all respondents, including women who’d been out of the workforce for less than five years, felt they were back on track within a year, the survey found.
“Many of the women I spoke with have maintained their technical skills and industry connections. They just, for whatever reason, downshifted their careers,” Stromberg says. “We have to make sure employers can see beyond that.”
Bunny Naghipour brought the bear everywhere. She was spending the week in New York City for job training after a three-year career break, and her 6-year-old son back home in Atlanta wanted to feel like he was there with her. It was the first week of August 2018, and it would be their longest separation since he was born.
So he gave his mom his favorite little toy bear and asked for selfies around the city. She shot one in Midtown Manhattan and another with the Empire State Building looming behind her and the bear. After a while, the tag-along bear became a lighthearted joke among her peers. “It was part of my story,” says Naghipour, a certified project manager. “If that’s what it took to bring my son along, then that’s what I’m going to do, because I can be committed to both.” And she adds: “It’s a false choice that you have to choose between being a mom or your career.”
Naghipour took her career hiatus in 2015 to spend more time with her son, who was just entering preschool. Yet she ran into roadblock after roadblock when she started her journey back to work, despite being out of the labor force for only less than five years. Naghipour’s situation is not an anomaly, though: according to the “Women on the Rise” survey, 34 percent of women respondents who took a break of two to five years said their reentry was difficult. (That number jumps to 68 percent for women who paused for longer than 10 years.)
One of the main challenges Naghipour faced when relaunching her career was finding a position that fit her qualifications. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be to get back into a similar role that I left,” she says, “and that discouraged me.” She was working in senior leadership when she took her hiatus, and served as a board trustee during her break, but the jobs she was being offered were far below her experience level. Her credentials, she says, were often minimized by recruiters—a common encounter returners say they run into. “A lot of them are forced to take up entry-level jobs, which do not take into account the professional experience they already have,” says Deepika Chhibber, program director at Women Back to Work. “They should not be penalized for taking a break.”
Although the majority of organizations still fail to tap into this unique labor pool, many are starting to actively and consciously include returners as part of their talent strategy and diversity initiatives. They are teaming up with groups like Women Back to Work, iRelaunch, and reacHIRE to create “returnships”—internship-like work programs tailored to people reentering the workforce that offer mid- to senior-level positions. In fact, returnships were how Naghipour and Seery relaunched their careers.
Margaret Seery started her journey back to work three years ago, but she wasn’t hired until earlier this year. She spent that time, she says, exploring what she wanted to do for work. As a STEM professional, Seery worked in software development and technical project management. But she wanted to make sure that her new career fit the person she is today. “Being a returner is an interesting position to be in,” she says.
Seery joined the Women Back to Work program to help support her relaunch efforts. Through the initiative, powered by the IT staffing firm Akraya, Inc., she was able to connect to free resources, guidance, networking, and tools that made reentering the labor market less strenuous.
The program also led to her first job after 19 years. Women Back to Work recently partnered with Cisco Systems to launch a 16-week pilot returnship, which kicked off in March and welcomed its first large cohort on May 6. Seery works there as a technical program manager. “I have no doubt that she will add a tremendous amount of value to Cisco,” says Nathan Sheranian, human resources consultant at Cisco. “Conventional wisdom wouldn’t lead you to expect someone with that gap to show up in that manner, but she completely blew that notion out of the water.”
Similarly, Bunny Naghipour relaunched her career after joining Deloitte’s Encore program, which the professional services firm created in partnership with reacHIRE. Naghipour began her returnship in August. A few months later, on April 1, Deloitte offered her a full-time position as a cloud strategy senior consultant.
But women aren’t the only ones taking advantage of returnships. As more men are pausing their careers to stay at home with their kids—or for other reasons—more men are also finding their way into these programs. And that has tremendous implications for the larger pool of male returners, says Carol Fishman Cohen, chair and cofounder of the career reentry firm iRelaunch. “More men are willing to come forward now with their return-to-work stories than five or 10 years ago,” she says. “The stigma for men who are coming off of career breaks is disappearing.”
Naveen Gopal is one those relaunchers. Gopal’s decision to pause his career in the fall of 2014 was not an easy choice. At the time, he was experiencing health issues and received conflicting medical opinions. But he knew in order to get better, he needed to take a break, he says, even if it put him in “a very difficult position.”
Gopal, who worked in the power industry for 12 years, never stopped looking for work while he was on hiatus. Like many returners, he was eager to get back to the office. And, like many returners, Gopal faced barriers. The gap in the work experience, for example, was a sticking point for hiring managers. “I was trying to convince employers to hire me,” he says.
In August 2018, Gopal joined the United Technologies Company’s Re-Empower Program, a returnship designed in partnership with iRelaunch and the Society of Women Engineers. The program, he says, helped him “a lot”—the coaching sessions, one-on-one mentorship, and connections with fellow returners gave him the support he needed to relaunch his career successfully. After Gopal graduated the program in December, UTC hired him on full-time as a senior engineer.
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Returnships are often described as mid- or late-career internships, but they’re more than that, experts say. Cisco, for example, structured its reentry program so that each position is treated similar to a full-time employee role, says Andrea Lim, Cisco’s head of transformation and chief of staff. Returners receive the same access to healthcare benefits, on-site facilities, and childcare, Lim explains, and there’s an opportunity to join Cisco full-time at the end of the 16 weeks. “Our goal is to be able to bring all of these women into the fold,” she says.
Returnships are just one piece of the puzzle, though. Organizations that are serious about diversifying their workforce can take other long-term steps to attract returners. One practice, as identified in Korn Ferry’s Disrupting Talent Management report, would be to build a cohesive marketplace for talent—in this case, a company alumni network—that could help leaders feed their talent pool and maintain relationships with former workers. “That can do a lot for recruiting efforts when the need arises to fill a role,” says Korn Ferry Institute’s Orr.
Indeed, for the here and now, experts say organizations need to begin ignoring the gap—or, at the very least, work to understand it. People who take career hiatuses still pursue goals and develop skills. They manage competing priorities, deal with conflict, handle tough schedules, and oversee projects, just not in a professional setting. And all of those experiences are easily transferrable to the workplace, experts say.
That’s why Vashisht, Women Back to Work’s cofounder, has one piece of advice for organizations: “You don’t have to hire returners,” she says. “You just have to interview them.”