Back to work in difficult times

Organisations should be encouraged to move away from only advertising full-time jobs and leading employers are already asking managers to justify why a job cannot be advertised flexibly, according to Working Families.

Organisations should be encouraged to move away from only advertising full-time jobs and leading employers are already asking managers to justify why a job cannot be advertised flexibly, according to Working Families.

Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families, will be speaking at the Back to Work seminar at on 8th March. She says the organisation has seen an increase in the number of calls it receives from women on maternity leave who are facing redundancy situations since the start of the recession. Many have lost flexible jobs and are seeking new flexible work, but are finding it difficult as employers still tend to advertise only full-time positions.

Jackson says: “I think there has been a trend for employers to get rid of employees they consider problematic, such as the sick, the pregnant, those who want to work flexibly, those on maternity leave. Women on maternity leave are a soft target for redundancy because they’re not around the office, not plugged into what is going on.”

Under flexible working legislation, women can only request flexible working once they have 26 weeks of service. Jackson says things are changing, though. Around a third of employers who took part in the Top Employers for Working Families benchmark 2010 now require managers to justify why a job cannot be advertised flexibly, she says. Also when the organisation did some “mystery shopping” on a range of jobs that were advertised as full time only, they found many of the employers were open to a discussion about working hours.

She says: “Women need to be encouraged to consider how they can “sell” their flexible working to their employer better. They could ask for flexible working, even if the job is not advertised with flexible working as an option.”

She adds that there may be more flexible jobs percentage-wise now due to an increase in employers hiring part-time workers to cut costs.

One of the key issues for women trying to find new work after a career break or maternity leave is confidence. Jackson agrees that more support is needed in challenging economic times to help women get back to work, but says women may have to hunt hard to find affordable sources of help, given cutbacks in services offering such help, including the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science and Engineering which has just been given a twelve-month reprieve from losing all their funding.

Katerina Gould, career consultant and founder of Thinking Potential , says women who have been out of the workforce for some time might not have the same sense of urgency about getting a job as someone who has just lost a job and needs to work. They can therefore allow themselves more time and take a more planned, measured approach, re-evaluate what their skills are and what they want from a job.

Katerina, who is also speaking at the Back to work seminar at, says: “My advice to women in this position in the current economic circumstances is that it will probably take longer to find the job you want and you must be prepared for more competition, but that does not mean there are no jobs around. You need to persevere and have a sense of resilience. If you don’t get a job immediately it is not about you so much as about the circumstances.”

She adds that it is vital to network. “Employers are cutting back on advertising jobs,” she says. “Contact potential employers – it might be easier this way to negotiate flexible working. If you don’t need a job immediately you could consider short-term assignments or a project-based or temporary role and start adding to your cv this way. If finance is not an issue volunteering can help build confidence. You should also have confidence in your abilities and be very clear about what you want to do. It’s much better than a scatter gun approach.”

She adds that those returning from maternity leave need to build their confidence by remembering that they still have the skills, experience and contacts they had before they went on maternity leave. “None of that has changed,” she says, adding that it is a good idea to keep in touch with the office while you are on leave and to keep your ear to the ground about potential changes and restructures so you are not taken by surprise.”

Gould says having childcare sorted is also key to confidence. You need to be sure you have the right childcare for you and be confident about what you have chosen, she says.

Jackson says many parents are concerned about childcare costs in the current economic situation, with cuts to tax credits due to kick in soon and reports of the imminent closure of some Sure Start centres.

She suggests several ways of compensating for such cuts, such as better promotion and take-up of childcare vouchers. However, Working Families has some evidence that employers may be wary of providing a benefit which has to continue during maternity leave, the cost of which they may not be able to claim back. She suggests that in the long term there needs to be more done to investigate a voucher scheme which is not connected to employment and says this would help more families, including those who are self-employed or who change employers.

Another way of making up for cuts in childcare provision might be to allow more people to ask for flexible working, including those who are not parents/main carers, she says, and for the Government to emphasise that employers should be agreeing to requests unless there is a good reason not to. This would mean employed relatives could help out with childcare.

Another idea would be to allow parents to claim help with childcare costs where they use relatives, although Jackson admits this could be bureaucratic.

“Ideally,” she says, “the system would support grandparents who are in a position to help (with measures like the national insurance credit), but recognise that some families are not able to use relatives and therefore may need more flexibility from employers”.

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