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Management What career gap? Re-entry programs help parents get back on the job

Ranjeetha Wakeling, currently lead customer success manager for [24]7.ai, who returned to work after taking seven years off to care for her children.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ranjeetha Wakeling’s three young children used to think her job was in the kitchen. Now they call her “Boss Mum” as she dashes out the door to a demanding new position managing customer service in the artificial intelligence field.

After a seven-year break from the corporate world, Ms. Wakeling approached her job market re-entry with some trepidation. Although she had worked as a “customer success” specialist with technology firms in India and London, Ms. Wakeling had no Canadian experience. Would prospective employers hold that against her? And how would she explain “the gap” in her resume? With candour, she decided.

Ms. Wakeling’s LinkedIn profile caught the eye of a recruiter from [24]7.ai after she graduated in 2018 from a back-to-work program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Her profile cites her education (Bangalore University) and previous professional experience. But it’s also clear that between paid jobs her occupation from February, 2012, to September, 2016, was full-time parent and homemaker: “Moved from U.K. to Canada, became Mum to three children.”

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Like many who have been out of the work force for an extended period, Ms. Wakeling did not have a professional network to draw on, nor did she know how to find employers who might be interested in her skills. She credits the three-month Rotman course with girding her for the hunt. Participants had the opportunity to work on a business case for a major financial institution. They were taught networking and job negotiation skills, and there was a daylong session on how to tap the vast hidden job market.

As it turned out, [24]7.ai was looking for someone with experience in business process outsourcing, leadership, technology and, most importantly, a personal touch with customers. The San Jose-based multinational combines artificial intelligence with human intelligence, recognizing that its businesses clients like the efficiencies of chatbots but also need human agents to deftly take over when the AI-programmed “virtual customer service agents” cannot address customer needs.

LinkedIn’s search engine zeroed in on Ms. Wakeling. She was hired in January as [24]7.ai’s lead customer success manager in Toronto. During several rounds of interviews before she got the job, “the gap” never came up.

Canadian companies, as well, are starting to become more pro-active in their search for this untapped talent pool – people like Ms. Wakeling who are ready to get back in the game. IBM Canada has established a “tech re-entry program” to entice more women back into the field. Royal Bank of Canada has a program called RBC Capital Markets RLaunch, geared toward senior-level candidates who have been on a voluntary career break for more than a year. KPMG Canada has a “return to audit” program, and law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP is piloting a career re-entry program.

In April, Ms. Wakeling was one of the featured speakers at a one-day back-to-work conference at the Rotman school in Toronto. She recalled searching her closet on the eve of her first networking event in almost a decade and having to make a late-night shopping run for a jacket that “would leave an impression.” It was vibrant red, with pockets for business cards.

The rest came back quickly. Two days into her new job, Ms. Wakeling was in her element, taking care of clients. “It brought back everything that I used to do eight years ago. It was amazing that I hadn’t forgotten how to talk to customers, how to make them feel at ease.”

Roanna Kim, recently hired by RBC Capital Markets as director, equity finance through the relaunch program, told conference participants that the trading floor “bug” had never quite left her and she leapt at the chance to get back. Chartered professional accountant Karen Mah, who has rejoined KPMG in a senior role, said the firm provided training to help her get up to speed “and they are respectful of my part-time schedule.”

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IBM is always scouting for specialists in AI, data analytics, blockchain, software development and other emerging technologies, said talent acquisition manager Jean-Marc Laurent. The tech re-entry program recruits qualified candidates who have been away from tech for at least two years, and upgrades their skills through a 12-week “returnship program” before hiring them full time.

In the Wakeling household, Ranjeetha’s husband Stuart, also a manager in the tech sphere, takes the early shift, getting the children fed and out the door in the morning before heading to work. Pancake breakfasts are reserved for weekends only now.

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