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iRelaunch is an organisation dedicated to helping women who have taken career breaks to bring up children get back into the workplace. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to co-founder Vivan Steir Rabin about their forthcoming London conference.
Fiona Lucas took a year’s career break from a high-flying job in the financial services industry. She took the time to enjoy her children and get fit, but after six months considered setting up her own consultancy. However, while doing so she was offered a full-time job as director of private banking at Credit Suisse. She was worried about going back full time, but the company offered her the flexibility she needed.
She says:”Spending time off work made me realise that I enjoy working, and it is something that I want to continue to do. Some of my friends are “stay at home” mums with huge potential, and they’re frustrated as they feel that they can’t work and be good mums. I don’t agree with that, especially as my children get older – I think you can.
Credit Suisse is sponsoring a major conference for career returners in London in March run by US organisation irelaunch.
IRelaunch was set up in 2006 by Vivian Steir Rabin and Carol Fishman Cohen to help experienced, highly educated professionals return to work through working with individuals and employers on career reentry programmes and events.
The London event on 20th March is the organisation’s second time in the UK. Vivian Steir Rabin says the concerns of those attending on both sides of the Atlantic are similar. “People are looking for opportunities that enable them to have a reasonable family life,” she says. “It’s the key question for people who have taken time out.” She also adds that there is a misconception that this means they want to work part time. “Many want to work full time, but a reasonable full-time schedule,” she says.
Because of the current economic situation, many of the women who are now seeking help from iRelaunch are going back to work sooner than they would have in the past. In some cases, they include women who would not previously have contemplated returning to work, she says.
A third want to go back to something similar to what they used to do; another third want to use some of their previous skills and take them in a different direction, for instance, if they were working in the finance sector they might want a less client-facing role so they can control their hours more; the last third want to do something completely different, sometimes based on something they did on a voluntary basis during their time out of the workplace.
“A common move is for people to want to work for a non-profit organisation or in education. We always recommend that they try to get involved on a voluntary basis first and then a paid opportunity may open up for them,” says Vivian.
The conference appeals to a number of different groups, including those who have recently lost their jobs, and is not exclusive to women. Most of the keynote speakers are corporate and the conference is good for networking with the big players and seeing who is hiring, but there are workshops and panel discussions on a whole range of issues, including how to job search in an age of social networking, how to handle difficult interview questions and negotiate flexibility, how to set up as an entrepreneur and how to find work in the non-profit sector.
Vivian says iRelaunch advises people seeking a new flexible job to leave talking about flexibility till fairly far along in the interview process, perhaps even until they have a job offer. She adds that if you are looking to work three days a week it is probably best not to apply for a full-time job, but if you just want some homeworking or flexi-time this can be negotiated and more and more employees in the big firms are working this way so a flexible work request is “a lot more palatable”. “The employers who attend our conferences are really serious about giving people flexibility. They realise that they have lost a lot of talented people by slave driving them away”, she says.
She adds that employees need to be quite clear about what they want before they begin negotiations about flexibility. They may think they want three days a week, but find they could actually do full time if they had a day or two a week homeworking or flexi-time. She says: “Things like part-time working mean very different things to different people. For a banker part-time work might be 40 hours a week instead of 80. You have to be explicit about what you want to and can do.”
Vivian anticipates that because of the need for companies to retain and bring back female talent, we will see them looking at new ways of luring them back. A recent innovation is returnships. Goldman Sachs has already trialled these – they are 10-week full-time internships for women returners which allow them to rebuild their confidence and can lead to a full-time job at the end of the 10 weeks, although this is not guaranteed.
Other companies have been watching the scheme with interest, says Vivian. She advises anyone who is looking to return to work and senses some hesitation from the companies they are talking to to suggest doing a project for them for two to three months. “Companies love that”, she says. “You can implement the internship model yourself this way”, she says.
Vivian herself took a career break to bring up her five children and got back into work through networking – a person in her neighbourhood asked if she could work for him and she was able to increase her responsibilities over time. Mum-of-four Carol, on the other hand, went straight back to work full time in an investment management firm and took part in a training programme with much younger colleagues.
Far from being humiliating and demoralising, Vivian says training with younger colleagues can be a real confidence booster. “By doing this, you rebuild your skills and you can see that you have something to offer your younger colleagues, that your life experience and judgement are worth so much more than you give yourself credit for”, she says.
She adds that most people find that returning to work after a career break is like riding a bike, no matter how unconfident they may feel initially. “You get back on and no matter how long it was since you last did it you can do it. You have skills. You have to trust you can pedal when you get on the bike,” she says. “You have to project confidence to get the job though.”
The iRelaunch conference hopes to attract around 150 people. “We have a great track record,” says Vivian. “Around half of attendees return to work within a year. Many credit our conference, even if they don’t go to work for an employer they met there. They start looking at themselves in a new way and see the issues from a new perspective. We give them the tools to make the change.”