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Getting talented mothers back to work, a project launching in Atlanta

Backed by local money, a group will launch a program next month aimed at bringing talented women off the economic sidelines, giving a boost to the economy and local companies while bolstering household finances.

The Mom Project already offers online help in matching companies and workers, but the Atlanta initiative will be its first on-the-ground effort to train and place women who left the labor force to have and raise children.

Formally known as the Atlanta Women’s Work Initiative, the organization hopes to help 50 women return to work in the next year in Atlanta, an admittedly modest beginning, said Allison Robinson, chief executive of the group in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For us, this is a great place to start. We are hoping that this will be a model for the future.”

The group will try to link interested women with its corporate partners, including Invesco, Georgia-Pacific, AT&T and Voya, who will craft whatever training is needed, she said.

Although based in Chicago, the Mom Project is financially supported by Atlanta-based Engage Ventures, a corporate-backed fund that works with entrepreneurs and a range of “early-stage” companies.

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More than 40 percent of accomplished, educated women leave the workforce to have and raise children, “a brain drain” that deprives companies of valuable leaders and dampens economic growth, according to research published by the Harvard Business Review in 2005.

With the unemployment rate low, many companies complain about a shortage of skilled workers. Moreover, the share of working-age Americans in the workforce is nearly 7 percent lower now than it was in the late 1990s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That difference represents millions of people who are not working – both men and women. But among workers in their prime, the share of women in the workforce is lower than for men.

Allison Robinson, chief executive officer of The Mom Project, chats with Blake Patton (left), managing partner of Tech Square Ventures, and Thiago Olson, managing director of Engage Ventures. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In Georgia, 58.1 percent of women are in the labor force, compared with 68 percent of men, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Washington, D.C.-based group. In another sign of motherhood’s impact, the share of women working part-time is nearly twice as high as that for men.

Among those mothers who have left the workforce are managers, financial experts and technologists, Robinson said: Bring them back to work and you give them a paycheck and a use for their abilities, as well as the answer to employer needs.

The Mom Project is one answer to a shortage of skills, said Martin Flanagan, president and chief executive of Invesco.

“Yes, 100 percent,” he said. “This is really hitting on a need. You have a bunch of very talented people who are looking to get back into the workforce.”

Invesco, an Atlanta-based investment management company, last year had revenues of $5.2 billion. The company has about 7,200 employees – a little less than a tenth of them in Georgia. The company expects to grow by about five percent this year, about 350 people.

The company’s goal is “to have a leadership that is at least 30 percent female,” Flanagan said. “Probably we are somewhere in the mid-20’s right now.”

Flanagan said it is relatively easy to make a group of gender-balanced hires from new college graduates. The challenge is greater when a company is searching for older, more seasoned and valuable employees, because a cohort of women from that pool is missing – the ones that left business after having children and did not return.

In a statement, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms praised the project for adding to the city’s “inclusive spirit.”
“As a working mom myself, I am grateful for the great companies that understand the critical need for equity in employment, especially for those women who are re-entering the workplace,” she said.

Companies increasingly understand that the hunt for skilled workers has changed since the recession when employers could simply choose what they wanted from a huge pool of experienced people, said Cinda Herndon-King, director of Atlanta CareerRise, a seven-year-old group that manages a series of training programs.

There are many people who face obstacles to getting good jobs, she said: a criminal or drug history, literacy, limited transportation, as well as the need to care for children.

Smart employers will look for arrangements – or higher pay – that give them access to the people they need, Herndon-King said. “Employers are having trouble finding people and they have to increase their flexibility in what they are looking for.”

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