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May 23, 2022

Disproportionately displaced during pandemic, companies, state focus on bringing more women back to the workforce

Steve Laschever Candace Freedenberg is the founder of Untapped Potential, a Hartford recruiting firm that focuses on bringing professional women back into the workforce.

After leaving the labor force 11 years ago to care for her two children, Marin Ranta wanted to return to work last fall.

But with such a large gap on her resume, she worried about her ability to find a job.

“You hear that it’s much harder to get hired even if you’ve been out of the workforce for a year, much less five or 10,” said Ranta, a 43-year-old Marlborough resident.

But a growing number of Connecticut employers no longer regard returning moms as a forgotten lot, but a rich, largely untapped talent pool.

Today, for example, Ranta, 43, has a flexible part-time work arrangement with West Hartford-based aerospace components manufacturer Triumph Engine Control Systems. The contracted position leverages the research, computer programming and data science capabilities she honed with her physics degree and past professional positions, including in the neuroscience and aerospace sectors.

Untapped Potential, a consulting and recruiting firm, also provided Ranta support, career guidance and networking opportunities that led to her new position.

The Hartford-based firm focuses on helping professional women who’ve opted out of the workforce to get back into the game.

“The women we serve have experiential tools and the emotional intelligence, empathy, maturity and decision-making abilities that companies are looking for,” said Candace Freedenberg, founder of Untapped Potential.

Courtesy photo
Untapped Potential Founder Candace Freedenberg (far left) leads a panel discussion on women returning to the workplace.

The seven-year-old firm was recently recognized as the Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year by the Connecticut district of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Untapped Potential is also providing a pipeline of professional women to dozens of area employers.

Nancy Miller, senior manager of project engineering at Triumph, recruited not only Ranta, but another candidate through the firm, the latter transitioning to a full-time, permanent engineering position.

“The market is really tight for finding qualified candidates, and candidates that come from Untapped Potential are very skilled and capable,” said Miller, who has also served as a mentor there.

Women job hunters are benefiting from the labor shortage created by the Great Resignation, which saw a record number of people quit their jobs in 2021, Freedenberg said.

Connecticut alone had 109,000 jobs available at the end of February, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the same time, millions of women continue to be in a career downshift after leaving the job market during the past two years to care for children, particularly when schools and day cares closed.

The National Women’s Law Center estimates women accounted for 70% of the jobs lost in the last two years, and they held 872,000 fewer jobs at the end of March, compared to February 2020.

Meantime, male workers have regained all jobs they lost due to the public health crisis.

In Connecticut, overall job growth continues on an upward trend, although the state at the end of March still had only recovered about 82% of the jobs lost during the first two months of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Labor (DOL). Women’s labor participation rate, at 59.8%, lags the state average of 64% for March 2022, DOL statistics show.

State lawmakers responded to the issue during the recently-concluded legislative session, approving bills aimed at helping women re-enter the workforce, according to the Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA).

One requires the state’s chief workforce officer, in consultation with the Department of Economic and Community Development and regional workforce development boards, to develop and implement a post-COVID-19 women’s return-to-work economic development plan, CBIA said.

The $24.2 billion budget also invests more than $100 million to expand child care, an industry that took a beating during the pandemic but is seen as key to helping single parents and dual-income households get back into the workforce.

Flexible policies

More women in the state appear to be seeking a return to the labor force, and companies are anxious to hire them, especially for management positions, said Runa Knapp, co-founder of Connectalent, a Westport-based recruiting firm that specializes in placing female executives. Knapp said Connectalent’s website has seen a 50% bump in job seekers compared to a year ago.

Runa Knapp

“Now that kids are back in school full time, women are more eager to return to the workplace,” Knapp said.

Moreover, she said, an increasing number of companies are interested in implementing flexible policies when it comes to part-time, contract or remote work, especially in the financial sector, which showed high resistance pre-pandemic.

“The whole tone has changed,” Knapp said, citing a recent placement of a working mother in a full-time hybrid role that allows her to shift her hours to accommodate day-care demands.

Freedenberg said Untapped Potential is seeing a similar uptick in client candidates this year. Flexible work schedules, telecommuting and other family-friendly programs that were once rare are now becoming more common, she said.

“Employers’ eyes are being opened to the demands on moms and leveraging technology and more flexible work modes to let women participate,” she said.

The firm’s candidates typically range from ages 33 to 55, and from five to 13 years of job experience. They’re women like Ranta and Nicole Kutz, 46, who left the workforce for eight years to raise two children.

The Unionville resident previously earned a master’s degree in business administration and worked as an insurance executive, but found she was getting little response when she started applying for jobs prior to coming to Untapped Potential.

Kutz said she benefited from Untapped Potential’s unique relationship with dozens of employers ranging from startups and nonprofits to Fortune 100 companies.

Aside from direct hires, the firm works with employers to cultivate opportunities that provide a stepping stone for re-entry, engagements called “flexreturn,” the equivalent of paid temporary internal assignments that allow both the candidate and employer to test a fit, often on a part-time basis to suit a working mom’s schedule.

“We’re leveraging the candidate’s real experience and the client is opening the door, hosting the candidate in a role that they might not be fit for today, but they believe and we believe that within a three-month period, [the job seeker] will be able to adapt to the role,” said Freedenberg.

For Kutz, a flexreturn engagement turned into a permanent, part-time technology position at CVS Health.

“It worked out great for me to have that opportunity,” Kutz said. “I clicked with people there.”

She’s now full time and was recently promoted to a director position.

Farmington-based Connecticut Wealth Management reached out to Untapped Potential to fill an opening for a full-time experienced client services representative and has the firm on speed dial as it expands.

“Working with Candace really fast-tracked our ability to get someone in the door because I know she has well-developed candidates ready,” said Deborah Hopper, Connecticut Wealth Management’s director of human resources, who has also been a mentor. “It saved me a lot of time weeding applicants through LinkedIn or”

Deborah Hopper

But on-ramping is more challenging for women without college degrees, or women of color in the state who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, according to a report published in December by Connecticut nonprofit Girls With Impact, and its sister organization Women With Impact.

The report — called “Post-Covid Economic Recovery for Connecticut’s Women” — found that women, who make up the majority of employees in industries including food (56%), education (67%), and health care (78%), were the shock absorbers of the pandemic’s havoc.

Over 50% of women of color saw a decline in their income, according to the report, which involved input from nearly 50 education, business and government leaders.

“Women need a holistic plan to land them back to work whether in traditional jobs working for an employer, or starting their own business,” said Jennifer Openshaw, CEO of Girls With Impact.

The report’s recommendations include training women for higher-growth industries like technology, advanced manufacturing and green energy, and finding policy solutions to make child care more affordable and accessible.

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