Companies lure moms back to work

Efforts to retain the highly skilled professionals include offering leaves that last several years.

Published: Sunday, January 4, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 9:48 p.m.

As more working mothers seek lengthy leaves to care for their families - or quit jobs entirely - some companies are devising new ways to lure them back to work.

After years of steady increases, the rate of working mothers with young children is declining. The percentage of new mothers who work fell to 55 percent in 2000 from 59 percent in 1998 - and it hasn't risen since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This development is likely to persist. According to a survey of about 3,500 workers, more than one-quarter of women who are planning to have children think they will stop working for more than a few months.

Traditionally, many employers wrote off women who quit work to become stay-at-home moms. Now companies are experimenting with ways to retain moms or even would-be moms. Some are allowing employees to take leaves that can last as long as five years. Others are trying to recapture workers who have already left. (Many of these programs are open to men as well, but women tend to be the target audience.) The retention efforts go way beyond the offers of flexible hours and telecommuting that companies have used for some time to keep workers happy.

The growing efforts to retain mothers may seem odd at a time when the labor market remains soft. But companies say that keeping ties with old workers is often cheaper than recruiting and training new workers. And the programs are most prevalent in areas like finance and accounting, where women have made major inroads in recent years.

Deloitte & Touche LLP, the big accounting firm, is preparing to launch a "Personal Pursuits'' program sometime in 2004, which will allow employees to take an unpaid leave of absence of as long as five years for various personal reasons.

The firm will run training sessions for employees on leave, assign them mentors and periodically check to see if they are still planning to return to work. A major goal: further cutting turnover costs. Deloitte says flexibility programs already in place allowed it to save $41.5 million in such costs in fiscal 2003.

The accounting firm already has identified a handful of employees in the New York and Chicago offices who want to take advantage of the new program.

``The logic is, we have high potential people who decide they're going to drop out of the work force for two to five years,'' says Sue Molina, partner and national director for the advancement of women. ``When they make that decision that they want to come back to work, we want them to come back to Deloitte.''

Women executives at Citigroup Inc.'s Global Consumer Group, the largest unit of the New York financial services company, are compiling a list of former employees, spouses of colleagues and friends who all have something in common: They have left the work force and are looking to come back. Citigroup is studying their skills and ``if the jobs don't currently exist, we're going to create some jobs,'' vows Stephanie Mudick, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for the division.

Of course, even highly trained professionals lose their allure to employers if they have been out of the corporate trenches for too long.

``A couple years is perceived by some hiring managers as a forgivable absence,'' says Paul Rupert, president of Rupert & Co., a Washington, D.C.-based flexibility consulting firm. After five years, however, he says, ``then there are major gaps that occur in any field.''

Some companies are now trying to make it easier for such women to return to work. Accounting firm KPMG LLP is considering a special curriculum for women who want to re-enter the work force after years on the sidelines. Its aim would be to make the ``hurdles of re-entry more manageable,'' says John Ellsworth, partner at the firm in charge of the Center for Learning and Development. Ellsworth says one possibility would be to offer a mix of classes, online coursework and professional mentoring.

KPMG anticipates that the labor market will start tightening at some point and is preparing itself for the day when workers have choices again, he says. The firm is hoping to start the program next year.

IBM is a rarity; it has long allowed selected workers to take leaves of as long as three years. While open to both sexes, 80 percent of those using the program have been women, and the most common reason cited for taking a leave is ``parenting,'' the company says. The leave is unpaid, though workers retain a major perk: they keep their health benefits. And while they're not guaranteed their old jobs when they return, IBM makes an effort to get them something comparable.

These types of leaves can make a big difference on employee retention. According to a recent IBM work-life survey, 59 percent of those who had taken a leave of absence recently said that if their request for time away hadn't been approved, they would have left the company completely. IBM keeps tabs on workers on leave - its policy requires that these workers check in with their managers every 12 months.

``You don't want to invest all of that time and energy in developing them (and then have them) walk out the door and take their talents somewhere else,'' says Maria Ferris, manager of work/life and women's initiatives at IBM.

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