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Returners: the new talent pool

If you spend time at the school gates and in your local communities, you’re likely to come across experienced Account Directors, alongside Lawyers, Accountants and Project Managers. Mainly women, these professionals have taken an extended career break to look after their children or care for elderly relatives.

The numbers are significant. ONS data shows that 1.9m UK women are economically inactive for caring reasons, around a quarter with professional/managerial backgrounds. The majority don’t plan to give up their careers for good. Studies have found that 75% of women on career breaks intend to return to the workforce when the time is right.

However, even the most highly-qualified women face significant barriers when they try to re-enter the job market after a multi-year break. Personally, they can lose their professional self-confidence and, just as importantly, there is no clear route back to their previous career. Traditional recruitment routes don’t welcome non-linear career paths, with a widespread bias against candidates without recent skills and experience - we’ve heard far too many stories of highly qualified professionals applying for multiple jobs and never making it past the initial CV screen. A huge wealth of talent is going to waste.

A new solution – returner programmes

Since 2014, we have been creating solutions to tackle this wasted potential. We have led the introduction of ‘returnships’ into the UK, offering a supported bridge back to work for women and men who have taken a multi-year career break. Participants undertake paid professional placements for 3 to 6 months with support provided, a built-in trial period for both returner and employer and a good likelihood of an ongoing role. Typically, the majority of returners are offered permanent roles at the end of the programme.

The number of companies running returnships has grown rapidly from 3 in 2014 to over 50 in 2018, ranging from SMEs to FTSE100 firms. These programmes have successfully supported hundreds of experienced people to pick up their careers, using existing and transferable skills from before and during their career breaks. Returnships are not the only type of returner programme. We have also pioneered ‘supported hiring’ programmes to bring returners directly into permanent roles with coaching support, enabling integration into annual employment cycles.

As a result, the conversation around returners is starting to change. UK organisations across sectors are waking up to the value of this previously untapped talent pool. Companies have found that setting up a returner programme makes business sense - filling skills gaps, increasing female participation at mid to senior levels, improving diversity of gender, age and experience and helping to tackle the gender pay gap.

Although many leading professional services firms have run returnships, the PR sector has been slower on the uptake, with the notable exception of Golin/F1’s Back2businesship. More forward-thinking companies are now needed to lead the way in this sector.

How can you find out more?

We recently partnered with the Government Equalities Office and Timewise to write the "Returner Programmes: Best Practice Guidelines for Employers", offering practical advice on designing and running a returner programme. On 26th June, the Government is hosting a Returner Programme Forum, to support organisations considering running returner programmes - register for tickets here.