THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

Leaping back to work

Companies are finding that returning parents are terrific workers

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 28, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

AT FIRST, it was hard to explain to relatives and friends: What was she, a 40-year-old intern?

Sort of.

Lara Simon, a tech executive turned lawyer, had left a big firm to care for her two young kids. She wanted to return to the working world, but found it hard to land a job with a resume gap. So she took an unpaid, temporary, part-time post at Daily Grommet, an e-commerce company based in Lexington.

Eventually, Simon, 39, was hired full-time — which justified her decision and made her the envy of other mothers she knew. “Do they have any other openings?’’ they’d ask. Or, “I wish other companies would do this.’’

Wouldn’t that be a welcome change in corporate culture? Plenty of people lament the dearth of high-powered women in corporate America. And plenty of people agree that a major factor is self-selection: Women take themselves off the executive track as soon as they have kids.

The truth is, many of these women want to return to work — when their kids reach school age, or when life circumstances change. But breaking back into the corporate ranks is tough, especially in a bad economy. When recruiters face enormous stacks of resumes, it’s easy for them to discard the ones with seven- and 10-year holes.

Unless, of course, companies make a point of considering women — and men — who have left the working world for personal reasons. A growing number of companies are doing just that. And not necessarily the ones you’d guess.

The nation’s oldest formal return-to-work program, for instance, belongs to Goldman Sachs, and stemmed from a series of daylong seminars the company held, in 2006, for women who hoped to get back into the workforce.

“We were finding some really great talent,’’ said Monica Marquez, Goldman’s vice president of global leadership and diversity. But “when we would put the resume in front of a hiring manager, there was that hesitancy: ‘I need someone who can just come in and hit the ground running.’ ’’

To change that mindset, Marquez encouraged Goldman to launch a “Returnship’’ program: a set of three-month, full-time, paid positions with no guarantees at the end. The first class of returnees started in September 2008, at the peak of the financial crisis. About half of them were hired at the end. The program has since tripled.

Returning parents, it turns out, “are terrific hires,’’ said Carol Fishman Cohen, whose company, iRelaunch, runs seminars for women returning to the workforce. Women who have taken career breaks, she said, aren’t likely to take more maternity leaves. They’re experienced, mature, and motivated: “They feel very loyal to the company for giving them the opportunity.’’

All they need, it turns out, is a strong advocate within a company. Someone like Carol Rosa Sabia, a former chief recruiter for the Cambridge-based security firm BBN Technologies, who convinced hiring managers to seek out returning women for hard-to-fill positions.

Or like former Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes, who had stunned the corporate world in the ’90s, when she quit a top job at PepsiCo to stay home with her kids. At the urging of Barnes and other top-ranking women, Sara Lee launched a returnship program in 2008. It drew 1,000 applicants for 10 positions. Eight of the returnees were eventually hired.

Barnes, who had a stroke, left the company last summer. The program no longer exists, but a Sara Lee spokesman said the company’s hiring strategy now incorporates a search for returning women.

In a way, that’s the ultimate goal. But an internship program has its benefits, too: It’s a chance for workers, many of whom still have kids at home, to test out corporate life. After three months of demanding work at Goldman, Marquez said, some women decide they still don’t want that breakneck pace.

That’s useful to know, and also problematic. Return tracks will never be a substitute for flexible work-life policies that make life easier for employees with kids — especially employees who can’t afford to take long breaks.

But perhaps this is a problem that will solve itself. If tomorrow’s 55-year-old CEOs are yesterday’s 40-year-old interns, they’ll probably have a very different perspective on working life.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.