If anyone has a clear idea of the marketable skills a homemaker may have acquired, it ought to be Ruth Eckstrom of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.
Four years ago Dr. Eckstrom conducted a study for ETS, using funds made available through the Women's Educational Equity Act. Its aim: to determine what skills women develop in unpaid work in the home or community.
A large part of the study dealt with the ''job relevance'' of such skills, as assessed by potential employers. ''Not surprisingly,'' she says, ''skills acquired through volunteer work were evaluated more highly than those gained from homemaking.'' She ticks off management of a staff, fund-raising abilities, and problem-solving experience as among things employers valued in community work.
Some of these same abilities apply equally well to work in the home. Getting various family members to work together on a project can be likened to managing a staff, for instance. In Dr. Eckstrom's view, ''Keeping a household going is a major organizational, management task.''
Robert McNulty of AT&T Information Systems heartily agrees. As vice-president for planning and operations, Mr. McNulty has conducted countless interviews with prospective middle managers. He points out that the capable housewife is going to be good at meeting deadlines, a prerequisite for sound management. Things as diverse as mortgage payments and key Little League games may hinge on her punctuality. Homemakers are also likely to be experienced in what the business world calls ''personnel development,'' he continues. ''If you're really going to develop your children, make sure they go to the right schools, you do research about schools - a manager has to do similar kinds of things,'' he says.
Other transferable skills he lists include: running a transportation pool, putting together a budget, getting people (e.g., plumbers and electricians) to do a job correctly, and handling a number of diverse tasks simultaneously. The last item is particularly significant, says Mr. McNulty. A pervasive failing in management, he observes, is the tendency to become overly focused on a single narrow aspect of a business instead of taking in a broader spectrum of concerns. Homemakers, he says, are forced to keep track of many things at once.
And it's important to recognize that decisions made by women are crucial to the business of running a home - more than comparable to what an entry- or middle-level manager might have to do. Such managers are usually dealing with a very small part of a company's budget, while a homemaker deciding whether to spend $500 may be dealing with a significant part of the family budget. ''The decisions she makes either make or break that so-called business,'' says Mr. McNulty.
Has he seen much evidence that employers appreciate homemakers' skills? The best response, he says, comes from small businesses, where the organizational talents learned through homemaking often match the needs of a company. ''I know quite a few women who have gone back to work and now have become the business manager for an office, because the people running that office are too busy doing whatever the business is,'' he says.
How important is it to start opening employment doors wider to homemakers? To answer this, Mr. McNulty engages in a bit of macro-economic analysis: ''As we move toward service industries, and as the population is getting smaller, in order to compete worldwide we've got to make use of our skills. It's becoming less and less a matter of manual, heavy labor. It's skilled people who can speak , can articulate, can think, and can plan - that's a work force we can't afford to miss.''
And that kind of work force, says the AT&T executive, is what we have in thousands of well-educated homemakers who've learned to run a household in the world's most technologically complex society.