MANAGEMENT UPDATE : Innovation Rules

In a world where change implies stagnation, workers are inventing new career models

Steve Stephenson’s daughter was six months old in 2000 when he and his wife, Angela, decided one of them should quit work to stay home with their baby Steve wanted to go back to school and his company was downsizing, so he took a buyout to become a stay-athome dad by day and a graduate student by night. When their son was born in 2002, Angela, National Sales Director at a large high-tech company, took maternity leave and the couple enjoyed three months together at home with their children. "Rarely do families get that experience," Steve says. In 2005, armed with a Master’s degree, Steve landed a sales position in Chicago with IBM. Now Angela is the stay-at-home spouse.

There is a lot of talk these days about finding new career models that no longer force people, usually women to choose between work and family and that provide better transitions back to work for those who take time off. The reasons are obvious. The 1950s-era model for success – a career with no employment gaps and ever-increasing responsibility suited a privileged class made up largely of white middle-class males with stay-at-home wives.

Today’s workforce is far more diverse. Often both spouses work, and younger couples are less wEing than their parents to sacrifice family time for careers. Stephenson returned to sales partly because he feels it gives him more flexibility to schedule his time. "If my son has a programme at pre-school, I can take off for an hour and make it up at night," he says.

His job search was relatively smooth because he kept up his professional network and sharpened his skills with a new degree. For many, career breaks are costly Resume gaps raise eyebrows. Re-entry can be difficult, and financial penalties are stiff. Women who interrupted careers earned an average 18 percent less than peers who did not quit, according to a 2004 study of more than 2,000 high-achieving women and a smaller sample of men. The average pay gap rose to 37 per cent when the break lasted three years or longer

Thirty-seven per cent of women left work voluntarily at some point during their careers, and their average break lasted two-and-a-half years. Twenty-four per cent of men voluntarily quit jobs, but they quit more often to switch careers or go back to school than to care for family

"If a man takes time off he experiences exactly the same kind of penalty," says the study’s author, Econo- mist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Founding President of the non-profit think tank Centre for Work-Life Policy

Her new book, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success, looks at what leading-edge big companies are doing to retain high-achieving women. Most women can not afford to quit working, Hewlett notes, but creating more flexible career paths for the high-achievers who can is important because they have "market power". "If anyone is going to change the rules of the game, it is going to be these women," she says.

The business case for change is quite clear Retiring baby boomers and a smaller pool of younger candidates increase competition for workers. Employers, especially professional services firms, are scrambling to attract and keep the best. One key is offering flexible careers.

One of the boldest initiatives is in the planning stages at Deloitte & Touche, USA LLP. Employees would rev up or slow down different aspects of their work to suit their lives at different stages in their careers.

The perceived stigma sometimes associated with a flexible work programme would disappear because everyone could customise her or his career

Deloitte already offers a range of flexible options. Tax adviser Mike Pak is enrolled in a two-year-old programme that makes it easier for employees to return after career breaks of up to five years. He is the only man in the programme. Most participants are women taking time off for children.

Pak quit working in December to attend Arizona’s Thunderbird School of Global Management to get an MBA. Deloitte’s programme gives him access to the company intranet, subsidised training to keep his skills from getting rusty, access to events, a mentor and a career coach.

"I’ve been very vigilant about keeping in touch with the people I worked with," says Pak, who expects to return to Deloitte in December. He said that one former colleague joked, "I seem to know more about the office than she does." Deloitte says the programme costs a fraction of recruiting and training a new employee.

Angela Stephenson, now a stay-at-home mom, is fashioning her own career transition. Her interest in nutrition led her to start a coaching business, Health Transitions. She turns away clients because she does not want the business to consume too much family time, but she plans to expand it when her children are older "I call it my post-midlife retirement job," she says. Her husband is happy to be back in the corporate world though he treasures the career break that allowed his daughter and him to spend time with his mother before she was diagnosed with dementia. "Toward the end of her cognisant phase, that was very important to me," he says. His stint at home also helps him empathise with his wife. "Hopefully it is making me a better husband.