Hiding in Plain Sight: An Untapped Talent Pool

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Hiding in Plain Sight: An Untapped Talent Pool

Attracting the best talent is a key objective for most Human Resource professionals. What is your initial impression of this individual: high school valedictorian, College of Business Student of the Year, master of marketing research degree, and director of consumer products marketing research. Sound like a good candidate for hire? Now let’s add: ten-year break from the full-time workforce, four relocations with spouse’s employer, and four kids. What is your interest level now?

You might be surprised that many employers are starting to take notice of this “OffRamped” segment of talent. The terms off-ramping (taking a break from the workforce) and on-ramping (re-entering the workforce) were coined in an article published by Harvard Business Review. As they face a looming talent shortage, companies hungry for talented professionals are beginning to take a non-traditional approach to locating experienced hires. They are finding a segment of committed, well-educated, loyal, and productive workers. Many left the full time work force in their mid-thirties, at the top of their game. Later, they are ready to reconnect with the workplace and seek meaningful and productive careers.

Retaining women has become a critical issue for many employers. A nationally representative study showed that 37 percent of women off-ramp (leave the workforce) for a period of time and 58 percent take a more “scenic” route including part-time positions. The vast majority (93 percent) want to return to work, but only 74 percent succeed; it is just 40 percent who return full-time. Recognize that over 60 percent of today’s college graduates are women and the issue becomes relevant. More than half of tomorrow’s workforce is not easily retained in the traditional workplace environment. Among those who OffRamped, 95 percent would not consider returning to their previous employer.

Workplace flexibility is the key driver of retention for many women. The use of flexible arrangements can give employees control over how they manage competing responsibilities, thereby reducing their stress levels. Reduced stress results in healthier workers and families; businesses benefit from increased productivity and lower health care costs. When Work Works is a nationwide initiative sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Their research reveals that “when flexibility is used as a tool to help both business and employees, both can win. Working flexibly enhances employee’s effectiveness, engagement, and commitment on the job, and improves employee’s well-being.”

A lack of flexibility is what drove many women from the workplace; it is what needs to change to bring them back in. Employers who understand the importance of work-life fit and career flexibility will successfully retain and re-engage top talent. Workplace flexibility is no longer a “women only” proposition. Technological innovation, cost management pressures, retiring baby boomers and millennial priorities are forcing companies to rethink the traditional corporate ladder. Both men and women are seeking more flexible ways to succeed professionally and personally. The next generation of dual career families expects gender-neutral access to flexibility.

The re-entry of this talent segment includes several hurdles. The need for refreshed and updated skills, a renewed network of contacts, and re-ignited ambition exist on the individual’s side. Skepticism, lack of re-entry support, extreme jobs, and the risk of hiring an onramper are significant for the potential employer.

There have been several recent developments that address the hurdles on both sides. Certain employers have developed programs designed to attract OnRampers. Lehman Brothers developed its Encore program to recruit from this pool of talent. Goldman Sachs recently announced its “Returnship” program to offer internships to OnRampers, giving both constituencies a low-risk experience.

In a 2008 study by Resources Global, 82 percent of global human resources leaders believe that the “war for talent” is a key and enduring business issue over the next ten years and beyond. In the same study, only 6 percent stated that the “softer” issue of work/life balance was a priority. Employers looking to tap into the on ramp talent pool and interested in creating a more flexible workplace will find that those objectives will dovetail and help them win in the war for talent. Reaching this segment of the workforce has historically been difficult, as these professionals are not usually found through traditional hiring channels.

Onrampers are experienced and motivated to pursue a career that may look nontraditional but their approach to work is every bit as competent and productive. The potential of these women is unprecedented. They are highly educated. They are leaders of their communities and bring a wealth of relationships and fresh experiences back into the workplace. They are committed to excellence in all that they do. They will succeed in the diverse communities of the current workplace. They will be seasoned, loyal, and astute contributors. Their commitment to excellence in all that they undertake often requires some flexibility to manage the competing demands on their time.

Flexible work can be equally attractive to employers. Employers have more ways to creatively navigate head count quotas and hiring constraints than ever before. Many of our professionals are willing to make trade-offs in title and compensation for the balance and flexibility they need. Lower labor costs and higher productivity are the end result as companies attract talent from this untapped segment.

There is, admittedly, a significant amount of effort needed to re-launch a career. I am the candidate referenced above with the ten-year gap on my resume. I had worked hard to keep a hand in business, amidst our family’s relocations, through part-time, and project work. But to re-enter the business world, I knew my inactive network and 1990-era business school education needed an infusion to favorably frame my skill set and achievements. In the last few years, several Ivy League business schools have designed education programs for MBA professionals looking to re-enter the work force after a career break. I was fortunate to attend a three-week program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business last fall. At the end of the program, I was intellectually updated and stimulated with a current, engaged network of business contacts in my area of interest. The question became, was the workforce ready for me?

Betsy Bagley
Director, Business Development

Passionate about creating a link between Texas employers and this talent segment, I returned to my region of the country to make a difference. New businesses focused on helping women (and men) find flexible, professional careers are popping up everywhere across the U.S., but none had made their way to Dallas. At Tuck, I discovered YourOnRamp.com, which connects employers to talent across the U.S. in significant metropolitan areas. I joined the YourOnRamp team to head up the expansion into Texas. We provide valuable resources to prepare women for a successful career re-entry. We are also working with local universities to address the needs of their alumni.