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You've been a stay-at-home mother, and you've been loving it, but what would you do if your circumstances changed for the worse and you suddenly had to get a job? Would you be prepared? Learn what you can do to make a smooth reentry and boost your family finances.
Looking back four years, Vicki Locricchio, 40, is still amazed at how quickly her best-laid plans came undone. Business was booming at her husband Joe's employment agency in downtown Manhattan. They had just moved -- with sons Joseph, then 4, and Nicky, 2 -- into a new dream home in central New Jersey. Locricchio, who'd held a management position in human resources at Citicorp, had been home with the boys for two years. "I never really looked to have a career," she says. "My ideal was to stay home and raise the kids."
But that was before the economy went south in 1999. As firms began firing instead of hiring, Joe's business was hit so hard the couple feared they wouldn't be able to make their mortgage payments. Locricchio began looking for work -- and was shocked to find her search impeded because she had only an associate's, not a bachelor's degree: "Seventeen years in human resources didn't matter. I couldn't get in the door."
Unfamiliar with doing Internet searches, Locricchio had to catch up fast. She went to the job site Monster.com, but didn't know how to reply to postings or e-mail her résumé to others. "I learned by doing -- it was a matter of survival," she says. After three months, she found a job as human resources director at a telecommunications start-up. But it ran out of money in less than a year. Joe's business wasn't close to turning around, so Locricchio found herself back in the job market. This time it took six months of hunting until she heard about an opening at Franco Manufacturing, a textile company in Metuchen, New Jersey, 50 minutes from home. Three interviews later, she was hired as HR director at a salary $10,000 less than what she earned at Citicorp. Still, she was ecstatic. "My corporate background was an asset," she says, "but what clinched it was my reputation for being someone all sorts of Citicorp employees felt comfortable talking to."
Locricchio started work on September 10, 2001; the next day, the World Trade Center was destroyed. Though Joe's office building was still standing, he lost many clients and contacts who were based in the Twin Towers. His agency couldn't recover, and the Locricchios scrambled to pick up the pieces. They'd already sold their home and moved into a townhouse with a lower mortgage. Last spring, they used the profit from the sale to buy a small company that services swimming pools -- a business Joe once worked in. Their first year went reasonably well, but the future is still "a scary prospect," she says.
After work, Locricchio picks up the boys from day care, prepares dinner, and gets them washed and ready for bed. She also handles phone calls and keeps the books for the pool business -- so Joe doesn't have to pay for part-time help -- before collapsing into bed at 11:30. Though the boys, now 8 and 6, seem to have adjusted well, Locricchio still feels guilty about neglecting them. "I miss a lot of school functions, and I hear about it: 'Tyler's mom was there. How come you weren't?'" And the job? "I like to say that I'm the mother of two at home and the mother of 150 at work," she says. "One thing I've learned is that you really can't plan too far into the future. Life can always throw you a curveball."
Expert's Advice: Though her lack of a B.A. hampered her job hunt, "Vicki did a lot of things right," says Shirley Porter, president of WorkVantage, a career consulting firm in Danville, California. The following strategies served Locricchio well and, Porter says, could work for you:
1. Conquer the computer. If your skills are rusty or nonexistent, take a tutorial or ask your children to teach you. The Web is an indispensable tool for any job hunter, and you can't afford not to stay current. "Answering online postings is one way to use it," Porter explains. "There are also online hubs, like Rileyguide.com and Jobhuntersbible.com, that offer links to resources, from tips on résumés and interviews to up-to-date forecasts for different industries."
2. Be persistent. No matter how many times you're turned down, keep focused on specific daily job-hunting goals -- such as making 10 phone calls a day -- and stay positive.
3. Stress your strengths. In her job interview at Franco, Locricchio emphasized the personable manner that made her stand out -- an asset that hadn't diminished during her time off.
Deborah Brewster, 37, a military wife and the mother of four children, was used to adapting; she'd followed her husband, Earl, to 14 locations -- including Japan -- over 16 years. Whenever marital stress began to build, she figured they'd work things out -- and thought the same when he retired from the Air Force to take a health-care administration job and the family moved yet again, this time from Hawaii to Wisconsin. So when Earl left her and the children in 2000, Brewster was devastated. "I was a basket case for a month, crying all the time," she says.
Counseling, religion, friends, and family helped see her through. Ironically, so did another relocation: Earl received a job offer in Colorado Springs, and the joint-custody agreement required the children to be geographically close to both parents. Brewster embraced the move, since her parents and three sisters would all be within a two-hour drive. But she struggled to get by financially, even with Earl's monthly child support (Shelby is 13; Kacey, 12; Audrey, 9; and son Grady, 6). Her job prospects were bleak: She'd married at 20 after dropping out of college. She'd only had short-term clerical and retail jobs, and she hadn't worked since Grady was born. Brewster began doing housecleaning, but it didn't pay enough. Then the divorce became final, and she lost her medical coverage.
She was shopping at a local Wal-Mart when it dawned on her that she might qualify for a job there. "You don't have to have a lot of technical training, and they're open 24 hours a day," she says. She realized that the children could stay at their father's on the nights she worked -- an arrangement that stirred mixed emotions. "I'm grateful," she says, "but it means I still have to rely on him when I'm trying to make my own way." Last June she started an $8.50-an-hour job stocking groceries on the night shift.
These days, Brewster naps for several hours after dropping off the children at around 5, rousing herself in time for her 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. shift. Then she sees Kacey and Shelby off to school from their dad's, and takes the younger two children home for breakfast and walks them to school. If she's lucky, she can catch a few hours of shut-eye before Grady's kindergarten lets out at 11:15. Once the girls get home, she says, "it's chaos." Brewster would not have survived without her church, which offers support groups for divorced adults and their children; the church's assistance fund helped pay for family counseling. Her father and sister have helped her cover car payments and, on one occasion, the rent.
Brewster dreams of a less physically taxing job than lifting cases and sacks of flour -- and one with normal hours. "I'd like to go back to school," she says, "but I can't handle another thing on my plate." Still, she is thinking about long-term goals for the first time in years. "I should have listened to my mother and gone to college or gotten some job training," she says. "I never found out who I was, but I want my kids to. I hope they'll make the right decisions."
Expert's Advice: "The self-esteem issue that Debbie is struggling with is common in people who've been out of the job market," says Kimberly Hessler, a career coach and head of Career Informant, in Colorado Springs. Here are steps you can take to protect yourself.
1. Stay connected. It's important for full-time moms to keep a hand in the working world -- not necessarily to earn money, but to keep their confidence up, says Hessler. "Volunteer in a hospital or veterinarian's office, or take an adult-ed course at your local high school or college."
2. Consider starting your own business. If you want to try this, you'll need either savings or salary from an existing job, since it usually takes years to start turning a profit. (Most institutions prefer to lend money to established businesses, not start-ups.) Query potential customers and make sure there's a need for your services; size up the competition and determine what makes you unique; find out the licensing requirements in your area; figure out how to price what you're offering; and get the word out. The Small Business Administration (SBA.gov) offers low-cost workshops to help you get started, and free counseling is available through the nonprofit SCORE program (SCORE.org).
3. Take small steps. Don't overdo. Whether volunteering or setting up shop, pick a task that's small and manageable. Each step will give you courage to take the next one.
As a senior account supervisor for Boardroom Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Plantation, Florida, Caren Berg, 45, writes press releases and pitches to local reporters and TV producers to get her clients newspaper interviews and TV appearances. Those skills have helped keep her family of four on an even keel during their shift to a two-working-parent household.
That wasn't what they'd planned. In 1990, Berg was doing PR at a Miami firm when son Shep was born and she decided her family would wing it on one paycheck -- that of her husband, Peter, a business broker. "I'd been answering to clients for 10 years," she says. "I was thrilled to be home." She had another son, Robbie, in 1991, and the thrill continued -- until the stock market collapse in the spring of 2000 decimated 13 years' worth of savings, including the boys' college fund. The family needed Berg to help rebuild their nest egg.
Her natural sociability stood her in good stead. During her 10 years away from the office, she'd stayed in touch with her former boss, sending him a friendly e-mail every few months. When Berg told him she needed a job, he offered one, but she couldn't manage the hour-long commute from her home in Fort Lauderdale. She'd volunteered as PTA president and organized community fund-raising events. Now, she told everyone she knew that she was looking for a job. Only days later, a fellow volunteer who worked as an office manager at Boardroom offered to introduce her to the owner -- herself a mother of two. Berg was hired in May 2000 at roughly the same salary she was making 10 years earlier.
The wired workplace took some getting used to. "I knew what e-mail was -- we had it at home -- but I didn't know about JPEG or PDF files or how to attach things," she says. "It was a whole new language." The school's after-care program seemed like the logical solution for her boys, but Shep and Robbie -- both ace students -- opposed it, convinced they'd be happier and focus better at home.
The family tried an experiment: Shep and Robbie would take the school bus home, let themselves in, and call Berg or her husband as soon as they arrived. "We'd talk about how their day was, then I'd help them prioritize their homework," says Berg. Downtime was also part of the equation: The boys could play video games, watch TV and surf the 'Net, provided they stuck to family-friendly stations and sites and left enough time for studying. "The boys took the law of the land very seriously," Berg says, "because they loved the fact that we trusted them." Now that the boys are in middle school and busy with activities, the end of their day coincides with their parents' -- so she or Peter can pick them up. The guys help with the dirty work -- Shep vacuums, Robbie empties the garbage, and Peter cleans the bathrooms. The system works, says Berg, because everyone in the family had a say in creating it: "Talking is always better than keeping it bottled up."
Expert's Advice: The secret of Berg's success was using her connections, says Douglas T. Hall, professor of organizational behavior at Boston University's School of Management. You can use yours, too.
You've been MIA from work for two, maybe 10 years. Brace yourself for some tough grilling -- and bone up now on your answers:
Q: Why are you looking for work now after so many years away? A: "I've had my time with the children, and now I'm at a different stage. I'm looking forward to working again and giving 100 percent."
Q: What makes you think you can handle the pressure after so long doing nothing? A: "My performance in previous jobs shows that I don't buckle under pressure. And during my years away from salaried work, I've juggled the competing needs of a lot of people and managed things well, even with constant interruptions. Pressure doesn't faze me."
Q: How can I know you won't suddenly decide to stay home again? A: "I'm looking for career fulfillment. I hope to grow in this position and become even more valuable to the company. In fact, I'd love to hear what long-term opportunities you have to offer."
Q: Given that you dropped out, you understand I can't offer you the same salary as someone currently in the workforce. A: "My skills are as sharp as ever, and I feel I deserve a salary that is commensurate. I hope there's room for negotiation."Why a College Degree Counts
If you're like a lot of women, you check off the "some college" box on surveys. But securing a degree can make the difference between getting hired -- or not -- should you want to reenter the workforce. In addition to evening and weekend classes, many schools offer online courses and even course credit for life experience. A good place to start is your local community or state college, or visit Mapping-your-future.org or Petersons.com. Cost isn't necessarily prohibitive. Although tuition and fees at four-year public colleges averaged $4,081 last year, many schools cost less than that, and more than 60 percent of students receive financial aid. Contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 800-433-3243 or visit Fafsa.ed.gov to learn about grants and loans.