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Returnships for Soccer Moms

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On Monday, Kathy Bayert played Transformer Bingo with her kids when they returned home from school. On Tuesday, she got up and went to work at Sara Lee where she worked on developing materials for a global employee engagement survey and felt like she was making a real contribution.

Kathy Bayert, a Mom in the greater Chicago area, stayed home with her 2 kids for 6 years until her oldest started kindergarten. In her previous life, she was a Kellogg MBA, working 70 hour-weeks as an organizational change strategy consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (now a division of IBM). After marrying and having children, she quickly found out that the consulting lifestyle, with extensive travel and impossible hours, did not fit well with her family responsibilities. In an attempt to balance her life, she quit her job as a high-powered consultant and tried working part-time from home as an independent coach to individuals and small businesses, but quickly realized this was not the best way to engage her talents.

During her years at home, Kathy found it difficult not to do anything with her skills, so she became involved at her kids' school, worked to pass a local school district referendum, and coordinated a homeless shelter at her church. Even before her oldest child started school, Kathy began thinking about how to re-enter the workforce. She looked into part-time and contract work, but had a difficult time identifying opportunities which utilized her experience and offered the flexibility she desired for her family. Finally, her alma mater, the Kellogg Graduate School of Business at Northwestern University, offered a workshop on flexible work opportunities. During this workshop, she learned about Sara Lee's "Returnship" Program, specifically designed for professional individuals who've been out of the workforce for a period of time and would like to get back in. Designed by a group of senior female managers at Sara Lee, the Returnship program was created to attract educated, experienced individuals from a largely untapped talent pool of formerly-professional, stay-at-home parents. Creating a smooth transition for professionals to return to the workforce, Sara Lee attracted over 800 applications for their first Returnship class.

"The mindset at Sara Lee is to embrace the gap in each candidate's resume and to consider the skills gained during their absence from the workforce....things like volunteer work, PTA and community involvement," according to Alissa Bolton, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications. Kathy fit right into this description and heeded Sara Lee's encouragement to highlight her community activities on her resume.

After being chosen as one of the 11 out of 800 applicants, Kathy became a Sara Lee employee, sharing one full headcount with another Returnship participant. While they technically shared a job, Kathy and her work partner were each assigned unique projects, thus minimizing the need for coordination in a typical job share arrangement. Kathy worked Mondays, Tuesdays and a half day on Wednesdays. Her job share partner worked Wednesdays, Thursdays and a half day on Fridays. Any coordination needed was accomplished during their common time on Wednesdays. During this initial assignment, Sara Lee put all 11 Returnship Program participants through a complete on-boarding experience including technical training, networking events and skill-refreshing classes. Each participant worked at a real job, doing significant projects, while also working with their managers to come up with a schedule that worked for both. The ultimate desire is to make each Returnship participant a regular employee, whether full time or part time.

As for Kathy, life has changed significantly, not just in the activities in which she engages, but in her attitude as well. After 4 months in the job share arrangement, Kathy's job share partner transitioned to a full-time job with 4 days in the office and one day at home. Kathy now works 3 full days, with Mondays and Fridays at home with her kids. She no longer obsesses about having a clean house and makes sure to focus only on her kids on the days she's at home. "You can't eat off my floors and some things fall through the cracks, but I've made a conscious choice to focus on two things: my job and my family. I am very fortunate to be in an environment which supports my need for flexibility."

Sara Lee has re-emphasized its commitment to a flexible work-life environment and is revising the Returnship program to become part of the "regular recruiting process." Instead of a standalone program focused on a cohort of returnees at one specific time within the year, Returnships are being integrated into how Sara Lee continuously recruits. According to Mark Demich, Vice President of Organization Development and Diversity & Inclusion, "We are speeding up the integration of Returnships into our overall recruiting strategy and approach. We expected to run another cohort or two through the program before fully integrating it as a normal part of recruiting. However, our business leaders asked us to speed-up the integration in order to find this talent throughout the year and bring them into Sara Lee whenever the need arose."

According to Kathy Bayert, "I stayed home for 4 years waiting for something like this. There are some wise people at Sara Lee who realize the large pool of untapped talent here in the Chicago area. This is a very creative way to reach out to that pool. I am very grateful to Sara Lee for coming up with something like this, close to home."

Sherry Moss is a Professor of Organizational Studies at Wake Forest University and a co-founder of www.HomeBy3.com, a niche online job board which offers free job postings to organizations wishing to advertise flex-jobs to attract the formerly-professional stay-at-home Mom and other individuals who'd like to work flexibly. To learn more about HomeBy3, visit www.HomeBy3.com or email Sherry at sherry.moss@HomeBy3.com. Please email and share stories of how you or your organization are taking advantage of work flexibility.