Displaced homemakers: translating unpaid skills into jobs

What happens when a woman, after 18 years of marriage, finds herself without an income, without work experience, and with a houseful of teen-age children to support?

That was the situation facing a Houston housewife five years ago after the breakup of her marriage. She stumbled into a succession of short-lived jobs before discovering that she did indeed have a salable skill - an artistic talent that had been simmering for years. Then came the arduous tasks: establishing a business along learn-as-you-go lines, redefining her role within the family from housewife to major provider, moving to her present home in San Francisco, and even taking a new name - Murai.

The outcome of Murai's story is no doubt extraordinary: Doing fashion and design business in Europe and the United States, she has built an initial investment of $20,000 (the equity from the sale of her Houston home) into sales totaling nearly half a million dollars. But its beginnings were far from extraordinary.

Each year thousands of women from widely varying economic and social backgrounds find themselves in circumstances similar to Murai's. Cut off from their accustomed source of income by divorce or the decease or disablement of their spouses, they join the ranks of ''displaced homemakers.''

For many of them, seeking a job outside the home is often a first-time experience. Most soon arrive at a formidable hurdle - the perception on the part of employers, and on their own parts, perhaps, that they lack any marketable skills. As Murai puts it, ''Not only did you think you had no skills, nobody else did, either - the best I could get was temporary typing at $3.50 an hour.''

And that was in spite of what she calls an ''incredible amount of volunteer experience'' with community clubs, travel groups, and her church - not to mention her many years as chief organizer and coordinator of a household of five that moved frequently as her husband's oil-industry job shifted from Libya to Rome to London and finally on to Houston.

There were glimmers of hope for Murai, though. At one point, an oil company executive recognized her latent managerial skill and quipped, ''If I had you as a receptionist, the first thing you'd do is get all the people off the elevator and organize them.'' Later, an employment agency head encouraged her to look around the office and see what was needed that she could design - an exercise that resulted in the sale of some decorative screens.

Murai's encouragement came largely from unforeseen sources. More and more, however, counseling services are in place to assist homemakers feeling their way into the world of profits and paychecks.

The Displaced Homemakers Network, based in Washington, dispenses information to some 300 to 400 local counseling agencies (YWCAs and community colleges, for instance) and uses government and foundation money to develop new training programs.

How successful are current efforts to meet the needs of job-seeking homemakers?

''I think there has been progress in the last 10 years since the displaced-homemakers movement started,'' says Jill Miller, head of the Displaced Homemakers Network. ''But still I get hundreds of letters each month from women, and there's often no program in their areas.'' She emphasizes two attitudinal barriers facing women who arrive at the abrupt end of a husband-centered life:

* The idea that women in that position, particularly middle-class divorcees, are adequately provided for by alimony and child support payments. Ms. Miller, however, points to a 1982 study in the Family Law Reporter which found that only 14 percent of divorced women are awarded alimony - and only half of those receive it. The study also found that about half are awarded child support, but only a quarter actually get it. ''Needless to say, these figures indicate that most women have a very real need for a job that can support a family,'' affirms Ms. Miller. Many widows are equally in need, she adds, citing statistics that show large numbers of older women living in or near poverty.

* The perception, mentioned above, that a longtime homemaker has done nothing that warrants recognition in the business world. ''Women have a difficult time recognizing that what they do in managing a home is not that different from what others do in managing a business,'' says Ms. Miller. Are potential employers likely to see things differently? Generally, she says, the skills and talents developed through homemaking ''are absolutely not recognized and valued.''

But there are people working to change this self-perception. Donald Lussier, author of ''The Homemaker's Complete Guide to Entering the Job Market'' (recently published by Prentice-Hall), advises women to ''dissect their experience'' in order to get an idea of the types of jobs they'd be interested in.

In his book, he suggests ways of translating home-oriented skills into marketable skills - and even includes an impressive-sounding sample resume written by one particularly gutsy job-seeking homemaker. She lists such items as ''director of training,'' ''social coordinator,'' and ''arbitrator'' - all based on the day-to-day tasks of bringing order to a household. The point is made, albeit tongue in cheek.

To a few people in business, however, there's nothing tongue in cheek about it.

One of them is Robert McNulty, vice-president in charge of planning and operations at for AT&T Information Systems. He states flatly that reasonably well-educated homemakers wanting to enter the workplace may be the largest untapped source of managerial talent in the country. The ability to juggle a number of diverse tasks at once, a knack for getting warring parties to work together, an ability to see that contract workers (i.e., plumbers and other service people) do a job right - these are among the ''general manager'' skills that a good homemaker may have developed, according to Mr. McNulty.

And the qualifier ''good'' shouldn't be overlooked. As in any endeavor, some homemakers are better at their jobs than others - or at least better at some facets of it. Mr. Lussier sounds this general note of caution: ''You can't generalize about homemakers - it's far easier to generalize about steelworkers.'' A key point, he says, is ''to realize that there has to be something in a person's background that an employer could be interested in.''

That was certainly Murai's experience, although it took some hitting and missing before that ''something'' bloomed into a successful design business of her own.

Her advice to other women who may find themselves in a situation like the one she faced five years ago?

''The main thing is knowing yourself and seeing if you have any skill that's marketable. See what obstacles you're putting in the way of your own progress.''

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