When Carrie Asuncion left her job to raise her first child, she was an independent management consultant, providing human resources services to Silicon Valley tech companies. She left behind a relentless schedule working more than 70 hours a week and traveling internationally. She also gave up a six-figure income.
By the time Asuncion was ready to rejoin the workforce 13 years later, she and her husband, Leonard, had two children and had relocated from San Jose to Atascadero. She made the transition back to work without the benefit of the professional network she had built in the Silicon Valley over her 12-year career.
The most recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics show that 69.9 percent of women with children under 18 are in the workforce. Like Asuncion, many of those mothers returned to work after leaving to parent full-time.
Millie Eguiluz, staffing manager at San Luis Personnel Services, has seen a large number of new mothers leave their jobs, both among her clients and in her social circle. Their reasons are varied.
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“Some candidates choose to stay home, as their income prior to going on leave would not be enough to cover daycare expenses,” she said. “For others, it’s a matter of simply not allowing anyone else to ‘raise their child.’ Others explain it as a cultural tradition.”
Julia Aguilar, principal at San Luis Personnel Services, has seen an uptick in mothers choosing to parent full-time. She attributes the phenomenon, in part, to a stronger economy.
“With unemployment low, people feel more secure,” she said. “They feel confident making the decision to step away from the workforce and hope they will have the choice to come back when they are ready.”
Still, re-entering the workforce is not as simple as picking up where one left off. Many return to find few desirable job prospects. With no recent work experience, some struggle to demonstrate their skills and competence to employers.
These challenges hold true for any individual who leaves the workplace for a period of time. According to calculations from President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, a person who has been unemployed for five weeks or less has a 31 percent chance of landing a job. Once they’ve been out between 27 and 52 weeks, the odds drop to 12 percent. After a year, it’s 9 percent.
Local companies, however, report changing attitudes toward employees who take time off from work for personal reasons.
Twenty-six years ago, Felice Schwartz published her controversial article in the Harvard Business Review suggesting that career women may take two courses: one focused on work and another where family concerns preclude career advancement — an option later dubbed the “mommy track.”
Today, those choices are not so clear cut. For one thing, women aren’t the only ones scaling back careers for personal reasons. Eguiluz has observed more individuals making the choice to step back from their careers for a variety of reasons that include caring for an aging parent and medical reasons. “Staying out of the workforce is much less of an issue than it was five years ago, and employers are more accepting of it,” she said.
Verena Latona-Tahlman, human resources director for San Luis Obispo engineering firm Cannon, has seen “more fathers taking time off to bond with their children or asking for modified work schedules,” she said. “Early on in my HR career, that wasn’t very common.”
She believes this acceptance on behalf of employers is partly driven by the expectations of younger workers for whom “the work-life balance is a given."
As a result, today’s working mothers have more options. “Societal changes have made the option of taking time away from a career to spend time with children both accepted and viable,” said Aguilar, adding that women who make this choice need not fear “falling behind or not being able to eventually return to a successful long-term career.”
'Turning the corner'
Personal fulfillment and career ambitions rank high among reasons women return to the workforce, but financial concerns are often the driving force.
Adding a second income may boost the family’s cash flow — but it may also introduce new expenses such as child care and additional household help.
“When you’ve been out of the job market, you may come back at a lower level, earning less, and yet you have to pay for child care,” Aguilar said. “There are benefits for a parent being home with children, so if you’re basically going to break even, you really have to look at that.”
For this reason, many women hold off on re-entry until their children are in grade school when they can work part-time, or take advantage of low-cost after-school programs.
Yvette Avila couldn’t wait that long. The Guadalupe resident left her job as a receptionist when her first child was an infant. A year and a half later, the arrival of her second child coupled with the rising cost of living were making it impossible for the family to live on her husband Manuel’s income as a grower at a local nursery.
Avila needed a full-time position to make ends meet. When her son was just two months old, she became a full-time administrative assistant at Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County.
Initially, Avila placed her children in daycare, which cost $800 per month. “It was like having a second mortgage,” she said. “We could only afford it for four months.” Like many working mothers, she turned to family for help. Now, her mother-in-law watches the children for a nominal fee.
Among CAPSLO’s services to the community is state-funded, subsidized child care for low-income individuals. Avila said that she didn’t receive these services because priority is given to those on public assistance programs. However, her daughter Eliana, who is 4 years old, was recently accepted into CAPSLO’s federally funded Head Start preschool program in Nipomo, which is no cost to low-income parents.
CAPSLO also provided Avila with ways to cope with the emotional effects of making the transition back to work.
“I felt guilty,” she said. “I worried so much about them at work sometimes I would go in the bathroom and cry. It’s not easy, but sometimes it’s the only way.”
Jocelyn Brennan of Arroyo Grande faced similar financial challenges when she was forced to seek work after her husband’s landscaping business folded during the recession six years ago. She had taken off 13 years to raise her three children and, while she enjoyed the opportunity to immerse herself in family life, she conceded that she and her husband, Sean, were “struggling to make it on one income.”
Her family’s path to financial solvency was a gradual one. Her previous experience as a supervisor with a local nonprofit helped her obtain a job as part-time director of a children’s program at her church. As the job evolved into a full-time position, the couple began “using an assortment of nannies,” she said. Though she often traded off child care with Sean, who had a flexible work schedule at the time, she said that they “weren’t getting ahead at all, financially.”
Brennan transitioned to part-time positions with the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors and grand jury. In January, she was hired by 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton as her full-time legislative assistant.
Brennan is glad she toughed out the first few challenging years after re-entry. The family can now afford luxuries such as horseback riding lessons for 11-year-old daughter, Michaela. “We are finally turning the corner financially,” she said.
Finding the right fit
For many women, their career path after re-entry will be vastly different from when they left the workforce.
Atascadero resident Sheila Scott had limited options when she returned to work two years after leaving her full-time position as accounts receivable and customer service representative at Burkart & Salzgeber (now Burkart & Associates) to parent full time.
With a child in preschool and another in elementary school, she wanted a part-time job flexible enough to allow her “to take them to school and pick them up, and if they’re sick, to stay home with them,” she said.
She took what was available to her, which at the time was a series of part-time positions, many of them temporary. This included making minimum wage at a Bass outlet store in Atascadero, and a brief stint as a health clerk for a local elementary school. Meanwhile, she took business classes, both online and at Cuesta College.
It took four years to find a job that fit her needs, as well as her desire for a challenging position with upward potential. She started as a part-time assistant at Atascadero Insurance Agency. The company paid for her to obtain her insurance license. She is now an agent, working about 25 hours a week, allowing her to still be involved with son, Will, who is a junior in high school (daughter Delaney is in college).
Aguilar advises women re-entering the workforce to “stay flexible” rather than hold out for a specific type of job. “Try to look at a skill set you have that matches what the market needs right now,” she said. She encourages those in transitional jobs to take classes and obtain certifications in their desired field.
When Carrie Asuncion evaluated her own skill set and options for re-entry, she had the luxury of time. Although she felt her time off work was putting undue pressure on her husband, Leonard, his job as Americas sales manager with Hewlett-Packard comfortably covered the family’s expenses.
While parenting full-time, she obtained a master’s degree in counseling psychology, worked as a counseling intern and volunteered for nonprofits — all in preparation for a major career shift. She is now a life coach and motivational speaker, a business she operates primarily from home.
Asuncion believes that taking time off from work is a good opportunity to re-evaluate goals and priorities.
“My values are different now,” she said. “Helping corporations make widgets no longer fits into my values. Now I use my skills to help people.”
Closing the gaps
Hallie Webster of San Luis Obispo has a degree in music and arts management and a varied employment history that includes public relations work, retail buying and architectural drafting.
Her résumé, however, has a 14-year gap that started when her daughter was born.
During those years, she gathered experiences that she hoped would facilitate entry into a job working as a membership coordinator for a nonprofit organization. Those included extensive volunteer work such as coordinating social media for an animal rescue organization and serving as new families coordinator for Old Mission School.
In the past two years, she has applied for at least 10 jobs through San Luis Personnel Services and gone on multiple interviews. She has not received a single callback. “They want people who have a job,” she said, “They’re always looking for a reference that is current.”
Although Webster acknowledges she’s picky, most jobs she has applied for have been entry-level positions. She noted that she has been edged out of many job opportunities by recent Cal Poly graduates. Currently, she is working part-time at Mission Thrift Store — a position she obtained through a friend.
A gap on the résumé is just one challenge for re-entry candidates who are trying to demonstrate their relevancy to potential employers. “We see that when people are out of the workforce for three to five years or longer, their skill set is going to be less than if they stayed in the workplace,” Aguilar said.
Her advice to re-entry candidates is to complete courses and tutorials in skills relevant to their desired field before beginning the application process. This is especially critical with technology skills that quickly become out-of-date.
San Luis Personnel Services offers skills testing and tutorials for clients on software applications such as Word, Excel and Outlook. Clients also frequently take advantage of the low-cost computer training courses at KCBXnet, a nonprofit Internet access and training resource in San Luis Obispo.
There are free community resources for job seekers such as America’s Job Center of California, a federally funded service overseen by the San Luis Obispo County Workforce Investment Board and operated by Goodwill Central Coast. It offers numerous services to county residents who are unemployed or underemployed, including job search assistance, résumé review, career assessment, workshops, training courses, interview preparation and vocational training.
There is “a specific pot of funding for displaced homemakers” who need to return to work to support their families, said Allison Schiavo, Goodwill’s workforce services director.
Schiavo said that employers report finding sufficient job candidates with adequate education and technical skills. However, many applicants “lack the essential employability skills (also known as soft skills) needed to be successful in the workplace,” she said. Soft skills include communication skills, time management and interpersonal skills — qualities that are as easily developed at a school fundraiser as they are in an office.
She encourages re-entry candidates to include volunteer work on their résumé, as well as work done for the family, such as record keeping and tax preparation. “Don’t underestimate the skills needed to raise children,” she said.
Schiavo believes that even a gap in work history can be overcome with a well-crafted résumé. “Address time out of the workforce in a cover letter, not your résumé,” she advised. “Do plenty of research on the positions and organizations you apply for and focus on how your skills can meet their needs.”
Recent years have seen a shift in the way many companies hire and retain employees. This has eased the process of re-entering the workforce for numerous women.
When interviewing a job candidate, Latona-Tahlman evaluates the person on three qualities: their motivation, whether their skills and qualifications meet the needs of the position, and whether they would complement the strong company culture at Cannon. To determine this, she uses a behavioral-based interviewing technique with specific, situational questions that reveal far more than a simple work history, she said.
“It’s not as important whether they’ve been working the past five years,” she said. “If your skill set matches what we need and you are a good fit for the company, there’s no reason you wouldn’t be considered like anybody else.”
In addition, Cannon sometimes grants, “on a case-by-case basis,” modified work schedules or allows individuals to work partially from home. Such accommodations can facilitate re-entry, or even eliminate the need for new parents to leave their jobs in the first place.
San Luis Obispo-based software firm MindBody has championed the work-life balance with perks such as onsite massages, generous amounts of paid time off, and nursing rooms with medical-grade breast pumps. Like Cannon, they grant some requests for modified work schedules, depending upon the nature of the position, human resources program manager Rachel McClure said.
When the expansion of Mindbody’s San Luis Obispo offices is complete later this year, there are plans to include an onsite child care center. Services won’t be free, but, according to McClure, its main advantage is in saving working parents from spending their precious personal time driving children to and from a remote daycare center. Employees can also visit their children on breaks — a benefit that may make the transition back to work less traumatic for both child and parent.
Latona-Tahlman has been on both sides of the re-entry equation. As human resources director, she has “seen how accommodating requests for flexibility for working parents and returning-to-work parents positively affects our work environment and contributes to the success of our culture,” she said.
But Latona-Tahlman is also a parent. When she and her husband adopted their son last year, she took four months off, then worked a modified schedule for an additional five months.
“It was a really positive thing for me — that time to bond,” she said. “It’s given me a new perspective on what working parents are going through and what they need.”