How to Rejoin the Workforce After Raising Kids

Account for hidden costs, negotiate for flexibility, and don't whine about parenting woes.

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If you're like most women, restarting your career after a few years off to raise kids depends on three magic words: flexible work schedule. While a 40-hour-plus workweek remains the norm, many employers—maybe even your old one—have adapted to the demands of working parents. With a little smooth talking and determination on your part, you might find a good job in which you set the hours and maybe even set up an office at home. And if not right off the bat, you might be able to work a conventional schedule for a while, then angle for a more flexible gig after an initiation period.

But you've got some work ahead of you—and that's before you even find a job. To land a position with an "alternative" schedule, you'll need a clear concept of the type of work and schedule you can manage. Plus, you'll want to aim for a salary that makes the cost (and stress) of going back to work worthwhile. Once you've clarified those big-picture items, you're ready to start your job search, negotiate a salary, and arrange a flextime schedule that works for you and your prospective boss. Here's how to get started:

Do the math. What's your salary requirement? Are you willing to trade less pay for fewer hours? What benefits will you need, and which ones you can forgo? If your spouse has health benefits through his employer, for example, you may not need them, and that can be a bargaining chip to trade for something else you want, like more vacation days.

What's your ideal work schedule? How about three days a week, at 60 percent of a full-time salary? Can you realistically manage telecommuting seven or eight hours a day? Do you need to work where there is child care available nearby? Are there only certain hours you are able to work each day, or each week, depending on your kids' schedules? Make sure you scope this out accurately in advance, because if you propose a schedule that you end up being unable to fulfill, you'll lose credibility.

Research family-friendly companies. Several organizations compile lists of the best companies to work for, based on benefits, flexibility, and even on-site perks like child care. Working Mother magazine publishes an annual list of the top 100 parent-friendly companies, running the gamut from academic institutions to pharmaceutical firms. In the top 10: Booz Allen Hamilton, Ernst & Young, General Mills, IBM, and Wachovia. At General Mills, for example, 44 percent of staffers use flextime, and 33 percent compress their workweeks.

Also check out employee-owned companies, monitored by groups such as the National Center for Employee Ownership; not surprisingly, they tend to be employee friendly. Also, local publications often run articles about the top family-friendly companies in specific cities.

Look into government work. If you're interested in the public sector, the federal government is known for strong employee benefits, including flexible work schedules and telecommuting options. To learn more about jobs at key agencies, such as the CIA, the Navy, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veteran Affairs, and the Department of Energy, visit WorkforAmerica.com, a site dedicated to federal government job search and information. The government offers locality pay, so your salary reflects your area's cost of living. State and local government jobs might work out, too. At some school-district jobs, for instance, the day ends when school lets out—the same time your kids might be on their way home.

Consider small companies. Small-business owners can't always lure top-level talent with sweet benefits like stock options, 401(k) plans, and generous health insurance, but often they can offer more flexibility than their larger competitors do. Flexible scheduling is a fairly low-cost benefit that enables them to hire and hang on to good workers. One place to start your search: the Great Place to Work Institute, which ranks small- and medium-sized companies according to the level of trust between employees and management and the percentage of employees who say they're happy at their jobs.