By Kirsten Valle
Jeanette Flint has spent the last 18 years at home with her children, trading mechanical engineering for volunteer work at school and in the community. Now, college tuitions and a deep recession loom – and for the first time in nearly two decades, Flint is looking for a job.
“It's time for me to have my career again,” said Flint, 48, who lives in Marvin, a Union County town 20 miles south of Charlotte. “With the economy, it gives my husband some relief that all the pressure is not on him.”
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A growing number of stay-at-home parents are re-entering the work force, many feeling they can no longer afford to go without a paying job. Many are opting to work from home, launching online businesses and blogs, while others are looking for traditional work, heading to networking groups and job fairs armed with resumes.
Those job seekers are facing one of the toughest job markets in years and the same challenges as others coming back after a time off, whether it was a leave of absence or retirement: Openings are scarce, and employers are often skeptical of gaps in work history.
Still, many say it's worth the struggle to supplement family income or make up for a spouse's lost salary.
“Families realize that having two earners is definitely an economic hedge against real poverty,” said Mary Hickey, deputy editor of the national magazine Parents.
The change might be more pronounced in Charlotte, which has a higher percentage of households with a stay-at-home parent than the rest of the country. One parent stays home in 22.5 percent of two-parent households with at least one child under 18 in Charlotte, census data show. The national average is 15.4 percent.
The area's jobless rate also outpaces the nation – 8.9 percent in December, compared with the U.S. rate of 7.6 percent for January. In December, there were nearly 74,900 people in the Charlotte area looking for work.
While employment officials don't track the number of stay-at-home parents among the job seekers, recruiters and networking group leaders report more and more of them.
One job hunter described her stay-at-home duties as “transportation supervisor” and “labor negotiator,” said Bill Crigger, president of Compass Career Management Solutions, who also leads a networking group.
He advises job seekers trying to re-enter the work force to play up their skills and rely on networking rather than online applications. Others say broadening the search can be key, and that job seekers should keep an open mind.
“Obviously, the timing is not the best,” said Jim Ginther, a recruiter with Worldwide Executive Search. “However, there are certain positions they can go after.”
At Mom Corps, an Atlanta staffing company for job seekers looking for flexible positions, which has an office in Charlotte, the volume of candidates is about the same, but the reasons for seeking work has changed, chief executive Allison O'Kelly said.
In the past, most were just looking for extra income. According to a survey last week of the 500 most recent Mom Corps applicants, 63 percent of respondents cited the economic crisis as their reason for returning to work.
It's been tough going for Timisha Daniels, 25, who quit her job as a medical assistant when her son was born 10 months ago. At the time, the economy was “kind of OK,” and it made more sense to stay home than to fork over big money for day care, she said.
When things took a turn for the worse, Daniels and her husband sold a car and downgraded their cable, and Daniels started looking for a job. Now, with her husband laid off about two weeks ago, she's putting in two to five applications a day.
“The biggest thing is hanging in there, and don't give up,” she said. “I kind of wish I would have just stayed at my job, but we didn't know how bad it was going to get.”
Dena Sabinske, 36, didn't intend to be a stay-at-home mom when her family moved to Waxhaw, a Union County town 30 miles south of Charlotte, 1 1/2 years ago. The mother of three had worked as arts coordinator for the city of Alpharetta, Ga., but she's had trouble finding a similar position in this area.
In recent months, Sabinske has found herself up against as many as 300 applicants for certain jobs. And while her husband's job as a vice president at a Ballantyne company seems stable, “with not knowing, and we have friends who have been laid off, that's made me more anxious,” she said.
For many women, the decision to go back to work is about more than the economy. In addition to taking care of her young children, for instance, Sabinske has volunteered at their school and joined her neighborhood's social committee.
“I'm better suited to multi-tasking,” she said. “I need something more.”
Tips for re-entering the work force
Play up your past skills. Look for ways to show employers you can produce revenue or reduce costs, and think of examples of doing that in the past.
Focus your resumes on your past work experience, but don't be afraid to mention certain skills and accomplishments from your time at home. If you took time off for a special circumstance, such as caring for a sick spouse or child, mention that.
Create a short resume, no more than a page, to entice employers to interview you. You could beat out more experienced candidates if you connect with the employer.
Rely on networking; don't just submit resumes online.
Look for jobs that pay enough to cover day-care costs, or look for evening or part-time work.
Keep your job skills fresh. Instead of completely checking out of the work force when you have children, join networking sites online, volunteer and maintain professional contacts.