RALEIGH, N.C. — Beverly deSouza, who interrupted her career to raise three sons, is anxious about how a 15-year gap in her resume will look to prospective employers now that she wants to resume her profession.
“The field of biological research just changes so rapidly that the skills I had 15 years ago are not quite applicable today,” said deSouza, 40, a Cary resident who has a biology degree from MIT and held research positions at Harvard Medical School and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
“I’m very confident that I can learn new things now,” added deSouza, “but the tricky part is convincing someone who’s hiring that I can do that.”
The upcoming Back to Business Women’s Conference being held Oct. 8 and 9 in Morrisville, believed to be a first-of-its-kind event locally, is geared to helping women like deSouza who want to rejoin the corporate world after taking time off for personal reasons. Among other things, the conference will offer: workshops and panel discussions on digital and business skills needed by today’s job seekers; a talk on “New Rules of the Job Search”; and the opportunity to network with local recruiters.
The conference addresses a widespread phenomenon.
A 2009 study by what is now the Center for Talent Innovation found that 31 percent of “highly qualified” professional women voluntarily took extended time off from their careers.
The average length of their career break: 2.7 years. The No. 1 reason was wanting or needing to spend more time with their children.
Resuming their careers isn’t a given. The study noted that 73 percent of the women who wanted to resume their careers succeeded in finding a job - meaning one in four failed to do so. And only 40 percent were able to find full-time jobs.
Jody Barish, a Cary resident who has an MBA from Carnegie-Mellon University, recognizes the challenges. Her only job outside the home over the last 16 years has been working 6-to-10 hours a week as client service manager for her husband’s financial adviser business. She’s interested in part-time project work now with an eye toward eventually returning to her career full-time.
“I know the longer I’m out of the workforce, the more unattractive I am as a candidate,” said Barish, 51, who was an executive at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pennsylvania before taking time off from her career to raise three sons and a daughter. Her last position was director of clinical program development.
For many women looking to return to the corporate world, figuring out what they want to do is a crucial issue.
“It sounds obvious, but you have to assess whether your interests ... have changed,” said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch, a Boston company focused on career reentry that works with returning professionals - of both genders - and employers. Cohen is the keynote speaker at the Back to Business conference.
Going on a career break actually can be “a gift” for some women because it gives them a chance to reflect on their original career choice and decide whether it was a good fit for them, said Cohen, co-author of “Back on the Career Track.”
In addition, even if it was the right career for them prior to the break, women need to assess whether the career path they embarked on is compatible with their current lifestyle, Cohen said. For example, a mom with kids at home may have loved that her job involved lots of traveling before having a family but may not want to be on the road so much today.
Women re-entering the corporate world also should assess whether they need to update their skills.
“If you’re in a technical field,” Cohen said, “you may need to go back to school or get some sort of certification to be a viable candidate.”
A good way to take stock of the skills you need today, Cohen suggested, is to meet with former colleagues and ask them to discuss industry developments and explain new products.
“It’s a great way to get back in touch with people,” she added.
Women looking to resume their careers after an extended absence confront a two-fold problem, said Katie Dunn, founder of the company that organized the Back to Business conference.
On the one hand, some employers may view a gap on a woman’s resume as “a disqualifier.”
“Then there is the confidence gap” among the women themselves, Dunn said. “Once you have been out of the paid workforce for awhile, you sort of lose the mojo that you had when you were in that mode. I think some women struggle with that a little when they think of re-entering the paid workforce.”
Dunn, who this month started a new full-time job as associate director of the MBA Career Management Center at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, was inspired to create the conference by her own experience.
After earning an MBA at Georgetown and working five years as a marketing manager at IBM, she switched gears to raise a family - today her four kids range in age from 9 to 14.
However, she didn’t completely leave what she calls the “paid workforce” - distinguishing it from the undeniably demanding but unpaid work of being a mom. She worked a reduced schedule at IBM for two years and then worked part-time as assistant director of MBA admissions at Kenan-Flagler.
When Dunn decided she was ready to resume her career on a full-time basis, however, she found herself wrestling with a host of questions.
“Looking at the issues, it was a case of figuring out, where do I fit in now?” she said. “Where can I plug in my skills and really be effective and make a difference? What kind of employer will value they skills that I have? Are they outdated?”
Dunn doesn’t pass herself off as an expert.
“What I bring to the table here,” she said, “is the ability to put the conference together and draw on the experts and bring them all to one place.”
Among those experts is Addie Swartz, CEO of Boston-based reacHIRE.
Recognizing the difficulties that professional women looking to re-enter the career world face, reacHIRE offers six-week training programs that culminate in a contract assignment with companies such as Microsoft and Fidelity Investments. The PowerUp program covers both “core business skills” and a technical skills update, among other things.
“Companies want ... people that are up-to-date in their skills and can hit the ground running,” said Swartz.
This fall reacHIRE plans to offer its first course in the Triangle at the “introductory rate” of $1,495.
Nearly 90 percent of the women who take a contract assignment after graduating from PowerUp have ended up with either a full-time job or full-time contractor position with the business, Swartz said.
DeSouza, the Cary woman looking to resume a career in biological research, is interested in a part-time job right now but anticipates seeking a full-time position “in the near future.”
“The way you pursue getting a job now is so different than the last time I looked for a job,” she said.
Today, she noted, you need “to market yourself. You have to network and have a good social networking profile. ... I have never had to have a personal brand. The last time I just sent in resumes and had interviews and that was it.”
But deSouza doesn’t regret that she took a career break.
“I’m very thankful I got to stay home with my kids,” she said. “I got to be there for all their milestones. I feel like I have given them a good moral foundation and they are growing up to be good kids. I feel good about all that.”