By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Suzanne Cole knew something had to give. She had been able to work full time with two children, but with the arrival of her third, she said, she found life becoming "a little unwieldy." She was staying up until 1:30 a.m. to pay bills and do laundry.
Cole, an accountant for a federal agency, wanted to work fewer hours, but between homework, soccer, volunteering at her daughter's preschool and house chores, she needed prodding to do anything about it. That's where Christine Fruehwirth came in.
Cole heard the career and life coach from Potomac talk about "finding the 'me' in mommy" and thought it made sense. "I needed to do something . . . rather than putting it at the bottom of the list."
Over five sessions, Fruehwirth worked with Cole on a proposal for her bosses detailing how she would get her work done in a 3 1/2 -day week. Cole gave it to her supervisors in January, and to her surprise, they not only approved it but asked if they could use it as a model for other employees.
The total cost of the sessions was $500.
"Best money I ever spent," Cole said.
While parents everywhere struggle to meet the competing demands of work and family, for mothers who are highly educated and established in their careers, there is a growing cottage industry of workshops, recruiting firms, job boards, coaches and consultants. Many of these firms also work with men and older employees -- Fruehwirth has a client who is a stay-at-home dad planning to go back to work soon -- but the greatest demand has been from working mothers.
These work-life gurus pitch themselves as the business solution to the "opt-out revolution" of stay-at-home mothers and promote the view that the choice between working and staying home is neither stark nor a once-in-a-lifetime decision.
Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that more than a third of professional women take a brief hiatus from the workforce -- an average of two years. Another third take what she calls "the scenic route," some combination of flex time and reduced hours, while their children are small.
More women would work part time if they could. A 2007 Pew Research Center report found that 60 percent of working mothers across all income and education levels said they would be happiest working part time, a jump of 12 percentage points since 1997. However, only 24 percent actually had part-time hours.
For professional women, many of whom have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their training and established careers before starting a family, part of the problem rests with the nature of most part-time work.
"About half of part-time jobs pay very low wages and have no benefits," said Eileen Appelbaum, a labor economist and director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. "There are not that many professional and managerial positions available on a part-time basis."
The disconnect between supply and demand creates an opening for coaches who help hone r¿sum¿s and recruiters who can track down alternative jobs that make use of their clients' education and experience.
"A lot of women have figured out that they need help," Hewlett said.
With its high concentration of high-powered women, the Washington region is home to at least four boutique recruiting firms that place professional women in part-time or flexible jobs. There are also about a dozen coaches and consultants, who charge upward of $75 an hour to work one-on-one with women who want help explaining that five-year gap on their r¿sum¿s or getting "in touch with their values" in order to figure out what type of job they should pursue.
Similar businesses are cropping up across the country. Seattle has Quest For Balance. The Bay Area has Flexperience. Philadelphia and New York have Flex-Time Lawyers. New Jersey and Boston have iRelaunch. Denver placement company 10 Til 2 has grown to 16 franchises in three years and plans to add 16 more in 2008, said co-founder Liz Norwood. Mom Corps, based near Atlanta, has seven offices, including one in Bethesda.
Professional schools including Harvard Business School, Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco also offer workshops and seminars with titles like "Back in Business" and "Comeback Moms." Many of the schools were initially motivated to help their graduates. The Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, for example, started a two-day reentry program in 2005 after a survey of alumnae revealed that as many as 35 percent of female graduates were not working full time, said Connie English, Darden's associate director for alumni career services.
With few exceptions, the entrepreneurs in this emerging field know their customers because they belong to the same demographic.
Carolyn Van Damme, 39, started the Round Peg Group, an Alexandria firm that places consultants, after having her third child and leaving as vice president of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
"I knew a lot of women in my shoes who were in senior-level positions who left to raise kids or who never saw their kids and felt guilty about it," she said. "We got started with that niche in mind and formed a network of independent consultants, many of whom were stay-at-home moms."
Carolyn Semedo-Strauss, 39, was having a hard time juggling life with two children and a full-time job at the adult education division of the Public Broadcasting Service. When the network decided to close the division in 2005, she used the cushion provided by her severance package to get training as a life coach before having a third child. Now she works with mothers seeking better work-life balance.
While the demand for these services is real, questions remain about whether they can deliver. Despite the widespread acceptance of flex time and telecommuting, there is still resistance among employers, especially in time-intensive fields like law and finance, to accommodate parents who want to work reduced hours without harming their careers.
"Jobs are organized around full-time work over a standard work week. When you challenge any of those arrangements, you're challenging long-established habits and customs that flow around that," said Paul Rupert, president of Rupert & Co., a Washington firm that advises companies on flexible work arrangements.
For now, the business of balance boils down to using exceptional credentials and skills as leverage to broker flexible work arrangements. Slackers need not apply.
"I let [employers] fall in love with you and then negotiate the hours," said Beth Herrild, a partner with Quest for Balance. "The worst situation is when you get someone with a college degree but who never did anything with it. . . . If you're a dime a dozen, why would an employer make special arrangements for you? I hate that, but it's sort of reality."
The employers most eager to tap into the professional labor pool of mothers are nonprofit groups, small businesses and start-ups because they can get highly qualified help at more affordable rates.
Erik Muendel, principal of Brightline Interactive, didn't typically use recruiting firms to staff his 20-person boutique marketing company. But he recently turned to the Alexandria office of Momentum Resources, which is based in Richmond, to hire a graphic designer. "I needed someone who has a pretty high skill set but not someone full time," he said.
Momentum sent him Lori Luster, a former teacher and graphic designer. She quit teaching 13 months ago, just before her son Jack was born. Luster, 37, said she wasn't home long before she found herself talking with other mothers about wanting to go back to work. "There's a part of you that kind of misses that environment, that kind of misses that challenge," she said.
Luster didn't want to resume her 50-hour-a-week teaching job, she said. "I needed more flexibility than that." When she heard about Momentum through a mothers' group, she sent in her r¿sum¿. Her first day at Brightline was yesterday. "To have the opportunity to work on a limited part-time basis and the opportunity to spend time with my family and little boy means a lot to me," she said.