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shirley leung

Mothers being wooed to restart careers

Kelley Devaney works about 20 hours a week, mostly out of her Sudbury home. She felt isolated when not working.

joanne rathe/Globe staff

Kelley Devaney works about 20 hours a week, mostly out of her Sudbury home. She felt isolated when not working.

After Kelley Devaney had her first child, she went back to work. She had it all, but was it too much?

There was her MBA, executive title, and adorable baby daughter, but there was also the daycare shuffle that began with 7:30 a.m. dropoffs and ended with 5:30 p.m. pickups that had her gripping the steering wheel as she fought through rush-hour traffic.

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When number two came along, she quit her job to become a full-time mom. That came with its own set of challenges.

“I found it very isolating,” she recalled. “I was so happy going to work. I could go to the bathroom when I wanted to. Remember when you had control of your life?”

Yet another overachieving skirt arrives at the harsh reality that she doesn’t have it all figured out. High-powered careers would make us happy. No, motherhood would make us whole. Some of us are discovering that happiness might be somewhere inbetween.

Fortunately for us, there is strength in numbers. So many women have left corporate America to raise a family that the female brain drain can no longer be ignored. Employers are starting to woo us back with return-to-work internships and consulting gigs in hopes they will lead to something permanent.

Last fall, Fidelity Investments began hiring women who took career breaks for six-month projects. So far, the Boston mutual fund company has brought in eight women, all into its corporate technology unit. Each works out of the company’s downtown offices, logging about 25 hours a week.

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Their time off, Fidelity found, has given the restarters a fresh perspective on solving problems, not to mention a new appreciation for having a career again.

“It’s a completely different talent pool we haven’t looked at in the past,” said Steve Neff, Fidelity’s chief technology officer. “You can sense the hunger to get back into the action.”

Neff said the company will probably end up hiring some of the women for part- and full-time positions. The beauty of the temp assignments, he pointed out, is that it reduces risks for both employer and employee.

“They get a chance to see us,” Neff said, “and we get a chance to see them.”

Fidelity found these women through a partnership with a Concord startup called ReacHIRE, which puts women through a six-week boot camp to refresh their skills and then places them in four- to six- month paid assignments.

ReacHire is also placing women at EMC, Panera Bread, Putnam Investments, and Boston Scientific, among others. Training partners include Google and Microsoft. Not bad for a year-old company.

Serial entrepreneur Addie Swartz launched ReacHIRE after she took an unexpected career break of her own to care for her daughter, who suffered a serious concussion. During that hiatus, Swartz met many stay-at-home moms who wanted to get back in the game, but didn’t know how.

How difficult has it been? A survey of about 2,700 college-educated women by the Center for Talent Innovation found 31 percent had taken career breaks, with an average time off of 2.7 years. While most of the women surveyed said they wanted to go back to work, only about 40 percent were able to find full-time jobs.

Swartz said conferences and programs to help women to re-enter the workforce aren’t new, but the missing element has been job placement.

“It’s not about getting your skills up to date, and good luck with you,” Swartz said. “Can you create a pathway?”

She came up with a model to pre-screen applicants, put them through training (yes, people still use PowerPoint), coach them, (what’s your elevator pitch?) and then secure them temporary assignments.

So far, about two dozen women, with an average of 15 years’ work experience, have gone through the program. They range from mothers with toddlers to empty nesters who have been out of the corporate world for more than a decade. Some women want to jump in with both stilettos. Others want to test the waters part time, and with flexible schedules that allow them to telecommute.

Eighteen of them are back on payrolls, including Devaney, who took a four-month assignment in Panera Bread’s packaged goods division.

Devaney, who quit her job as director of marketing for a food company in 2005, works about 20 hours a week, mostly out of her Sudbury home.

“I am back doing marketing again, and I really love it,” said Devaney, 50, who missed the structure and focus of work.

“Sometimes you feel taken for granted when you are a stay-at-home mom. Everyone has pressing needs, and you put yourself in last place,” she said. “All of a sudden, mom has a meeting, a business trip. Get in line! The house is a little dirtier [but] I think my husband would say I am happier.”

It takes an enlightened employer to look past gaps in resumes. Devaney’s boss, Stephanie Crimmins, has two other mommy MBAs working as consultants. They’ve been with her for 18 months, working largely from their homes, 30 to 40 hours a week.

“These are people who know what they are doing,” said Crimmins, Panera’s vice president of consumer packaged goods. “They don’t require a lot of hand-holding.”

Two decades ago, Linda Zecher was a hard-charging executive at a software company, PeopleSoft, that had her traveling weeks at a time. But she gave it all up to stay home for three years to be with her teenage son. It took her a while to climb into the corner office, but she’s there now as the 61-year-old chief executive of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Boston.

Looking back, she wouldn’t have done anything differently. “My son, to this day, says I left my great career because he was more important,” she said.

The new girl power is having it all, on our own terms and time.

More coverage:

2/12: Mass. high on list of poor working women

11/3/13 | Magazine: Glass ceilings and getting ahead

10/11/13 | Shirley Leung: It’s not hard to get women on the board

5/29/13: Mothers are top earners in 40% of US households

4/4/13: In Boston, Sheryl Sandberg pitches ‘Lean In’ message

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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