Programs help women re-enter business world

Women on break from work could offset talent shortage
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/04/2009

Nearly nine years ago, Lezlie Grossman left her job as a vice-president with advertising agency BBDO in Toronto and took three years off to raise her two young children. When it came time to get back into the workforce, she felt like she was going to have to prove herself all over again.

“Emotionally, it was quite overwhelming,” said Grossman.

She worried the business would have passed her by and that she wouldn’t be as current as she needed to be. But she managed to work through her insecurities and connected with old friends and colleagues to help her find a way back into the business.

“The first phone call is always challenging because initially you feel like you’re asking for a favour,” she said.

Eventually, through hard work and networking, she ended up at another ad agency, Arnold, in a role on par with the one she had left at BBDO.

Professional women who have left the workforce for whatever reason — to raise children or care for an ill family member — are an invaluable resource as the labour market tightens and businesses fight for highly skilled individuals, said Jacqueline Moss, executive vice-president of HR at CIBC in Toronto.

“There is a large untapped group of professional women in Canada who were professionals, who had been successful in management-type positions in their careers, who had university degrees but who had taken time off for various reasons and wanted to get back into the workforce but found it was more difficult than it needed to be,” said Moss.

More than one-third of highly qualified women take a leave from their careers and 93 per cent of them want to return to work, according to “The Hidden Brain Drain: Off-Ramps and On-Ramps in Women’s Careers” published in the

Harvard Business Review

in 2005. However, only 74 per cent of them succeed in going back to work and only 40 per cent return full time.

With baby boomers reaching retirement age in the next few years, and as much as 60 per cent of senior management expected to retire shortly, businesses will need to tap into other pools of talent, said Carol Stephenson, dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

“The talent shortage really is a serious issue,” said Stephenson.

That’s why the business school, in partnership with CIBC, is offering a seven-day intensive program to help women with five to 10 years of management experience who have been out of the workforce for at least two years make the move back to work.

“It gives them confidence again, it allows them to refresh their knowledge of business, of finance, of corporate governance and things that have happened while they’ve been out of the workforce,” said Moss. “It will give employers like us a pool of women to look to and draw from for management and executive positions.”

The ReConnect program, which runs over five days in London at the end of October and two days in Toronto at the end of November, will look at what’s new in the business world and work on participants’ communication skills, resumé writing and interview skills. It will also provide participants with a network of other women going through the same experiences, said Stephenson.

“The whole purpose of the course is to ease the transition for them by making sure that their skills are totally up to speed because business changes so fast,” said Stephenson.

The program is modelled after courses offered at American business schools at Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College, she said.

“I certainly wish that would have been around when I was going back to work,” said Grossman, who is now the managing director of strategy and insights at Capital C, a Toronto-based agency.

The program legitimizes the concerns women have about going back to work and gives them practical skills to help them in their job search so they’re not having to start from scratch, she said.

Jacqueline Wilson, formerly a senior consultant with Mica Management Resources in Calgary, has been out of the workforce for eight years. She recently moved with her family to Vancouver and decided it was time to re-enter the workforce.

“I felt totally disconnected from the business community in Vancouver and a little overwhelmed at the prospect of having to go out there and network on my own,” she said.

She found a program called Helping Women Work, offered by the Minerva Foundation, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that advocates for the advancement of women. The eight-week career-mentoring program helps professional women re-enter the workforce after a leave.

The program is run by career counsellors and each woman is matched with a mentor and coach who can help her with her specific career aspirations.

Like the ReConnect program, Helping Women Work helps women with interview skills and resumé preparation and looks at how the business and employment environment has changed, said Wilson.

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