Karen Mattison

The slump is turning employment concepts on their head — and mothers in particular could benefit, recruitment expert Karen Mattison tells us.

By Candice Krieger, May 14, 2009

The recession is redefining the status of part-time work, says Karen Mattison, the director and co-founder of Women Like Us.

Established in 2003, the London-based organisation matches mothers wanting to get back to work with flexible job opportunities.

Today, the company — recently honoured with a Queen’s Award for Enterprise — is busier than ever. Over the past six months it has experienced a significant increase in employer registrations as businesses turn to part-time workers in order to weather the economic downturn. “More businesses are looking for cost-effective ways of affording talented staff and when you are recruiting on a limited budget, you are prepared to embrace part-time workers,” says Ms Mattison, a mother-of-three. “When we started, the service was about fulfilling a need for women, but it has become increasingly clear that part-time work is the answer to lots of different business problems.”

Ms Mattison, 40, is now working with the government to offer the service nationally. “The government understands that part-time second income is the key to lifting families out of poverty. You cannot rely on just one income at the moment. It is in everyone’s interests. Women Like Us is not based on the idea that every business can be run on only part-time workers, but the understanding that part-time work can operate at different levels.”

Women Like Us is working with around 1,000 businesses in London. Clients include the Whittington Hospital in north London, an NHS Trust, William Hill and the Post Office. Moreover, Ms Mattison believes the recession could serve to rebrand part-time work, making it a sector within its own right.

“The downturn will have that strange benefit. Previously, part-time work was about fitting in with family needs. It was often associated with low skills and low reliability. But now, other sectors are realising this is not the case and can see the business benefits. It about is fitting in with the business needs. The recession could serve to alleviate this stigma.”

This, in turn, she says, could pave the way for women to “break through the glass ceiling. Women in senior roles, who may have been forced to give up their job or go freelance to have a family, now have more choice. There has been a growth in the amount — and variety — of jobs available within part-time positions, traditionally dominated by administrative and secretarial roles.

“Employers are coming to us with senior jobs that you would not normally expect to see part-time.” Positions for finance managers, lawyers, HR managers, advertising sales executives and management consultants have recently been advertised on the site.

Ms Mattison identifies medicine and communications as areas where there is a growing demand for part-time workers.

John Wright, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “For many small businesses, hiring part-timers is an excellent way to manage growth in this environment.” Ms Mattison adds that City firms such as KPMG, which have asked their employees to work part-time in an attempt to avoid redundancies, raise the credibility of the sector. “Many women in City firms would have liked to have worked part-time but felt like they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they asked. Now, they are making the most of the opportunity to do so.”

Elsewhere, there has been an increase in registrations from women returning to work. “Many women, whose partner has less job security or has lost their job, are thinking: ‘Because I can, I should.’” To date, 10,000 mums have registered with the site, compared to just over 4,000 this time last year. Forty per cent of the company’s business comes through word of mouth.

The service is also promoted through primary schools, and ‘reps’ are recruited to spread the word outside schools — where the original idea for the business was born. The co-founders came up with the idea when they were employers seeking skilled staff and “found them at the school gates”. Ms Mattison is married to Jonny Geller, the managing director of the book division of literary and talent agency Curtis Brown.

Tips for employers
● Open your part-time vacancies. Small businesses often rely on personal recommendations, but by opening a role up to competition, you’ll attract the best talent available.
● If you can, give a little to gain a lot. Employers who offer some flexibility — like letting someone leave early one day a week to pick children up – attract applications from the best candidates, who are often only willing to return to work for the right job.
● There are lots of things we might want the job holder to do, but usually there are a few key things they need to achieve. If you focus on them, you can begin to build a picture of how flexible the job can be.
● Approach an expert organisation like Women Like Us, which can design flexible and part-time roles, connect you to more than 10,000 talented people and give you ongoing support.

Last updated: 3:53pm, May 14 2009