“I took a four-year break in my IT career as a software tester after the birth my second child and because of my husband’s demanding job. Now I want to go back to work, but I don’t now how to highlight my skills and convince recruiters to hire me. As the field is quiet competitive, I don’t think my CV will be considered by any recruiter despite my knowledge and experience. What can I do?”
This is fairly typical of some of the questions our careers advisers get sent at Workingmums.co.uk. Once someone has taken a career break it can be very difficult to get back to their original job and certainly on the level they left it at. For that reason it is important to take that into consideration when weighing up things like the cost of childcare in the early years because the long-term cost of taking a career break can be greater.
Many employers do pass over women with career gaps in their CVs, but a small and growing number are beginning to sit up and take notice. They realise that women who have years of experience in a certain industry represent a significant talent pool for them.
A number are starting new initiatives to target these women more systematically and announcements have been coming thick and fast in the last few months. In April, for instance, Thames Tideway Tunnel became the first organisation outside the financial sector to launch a ‘returnship’ programme aimed at helping professionals back into work after a career break.
Earlier this month it was announced that all seven returners on the programme have been offered positions in the organisation after completing the programme, which covered business planning, legal, stakeholder engagement, operations management, asset management and financial modelling.
The project involved Thames Tideway Tunnel partnering with the organisation Women Returners who designed the programme and provided coaching support. It focused on professionals who have been out of the workforce for two years or more.
Last month Lloyds Bank announced a returners’ scheme. Before that it was employers ranging from Deloitte to Bloomberg.
Most are concentrated in the financial services sector where the idea first originated in the US, with companies like Bank of America Merrill Lynch having run their UK programme since 2012.
However, Thames Tideway Tunnel’s announcement was followed a month later by global real estate advisers Cushman & Wakefield. The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development also recently launched a new mentoring pilot programme for women returners whatever their profession.
Why the sudden burst of initiatives? Partly it’s due to the work of coaching team Women Returners who have developed “returnships” – short-term paid positions, project-based, typically with training and mentoring support.
Returnships were pioneered by Goldman Sachs in the US and the company has hired around 50% of its 120 programme participants since 2008.
Women Returners say the programmes offer the opportunity for employers to access a largely untapped pool of high-calibre experienced and motivated women and get over the concerns of some hiring managers about their lack of recent experience.
Financial services are an obvious first port of call since they have been quick to notice the impact of women leaving the industry after having children and many companies have launched programmes to recruit and retain women. But many other sectors suffer from a lack of women at the senior management level due to women taking time out after having children.
So what do the schemes offer? Some are designed just to prepare women for returning to work while others include paid internships and the possibility of permanent positions. Some are London-based and others are nationwide.
Most involve participants receiving training, mentoring, networking opportunities and assistance with attaining new skills and rebuilding professional confidence to aid their transition back into the workplace. However, there are subtle differences between programmes.
The CIPD’s Steps Ahead programme matches returners with HR mentors who can help with, for instance, writing cvs, job search and interview practice.
Lloyds Banking Group’s nationwide Returners programme targets senior women – and men – who have taken a career break for more than two years. They will work across client facing, change management and delivery roles. It also has a unique focus on agile working, with a number of new positions being undertaken by returners on reduced and flexible hours. After an initial 10-week placement, there is the possibility of a permanent position in the company.
One woman who can vouch for the success of the programmes is Deirdre Critchley. She took five years out of her career in banking before going on the Returning Talent programme run by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She says going into the bank to take part in the programme was quite “a lightbulb moment”.
“It was the missing link. The programme gave me an insight into what it would be like to be back at work again and reminded me I have skills,” says Dierdre, who is now Director, Senior Banking Services Manager at the Bank.
Her example is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds and hundreds of women who are keen to get back to work and to use the skills they already have, often from 10 plus years in their profession. Many have developed additional skills from their time on a career break, looking after their children and managing their family. These skills are often underestimated, but are often the very soft skills and management capabilities that employers are crying out for – communication, time management and organisation.
The announcement of that Thames Tideway Tunnel has given permanent jobs to those taking part in its returners scheme is good news. It shows that employers and returners can both benefit. However, there is a need for more of them, with a nationwide focus and representing a greater diversity of sectors, and for employers in general to wake up to a much neglected talent pool.