Best for returners

Techreturners won this year’s WM People Awards for Best for returners and Best for SMEs. Here they describe their award-winning policies and practice.

woman using IT skills

 

Tech returners has been going for just five years, but in that time its free returner programme has helped scores of people back into the tech industry, supported by expert coaches and upskilling.

The accessibility of the programme – not just the fact that it is free for returners, but that it is location agnostic – combined with the focus on creating genuine employment possibilities led to it winning this year’s WM People Top Employer Award for Best for Returners. The judges said that “there is a real sense of passion driving Tech Returners’ mission”. 

Tech Returners was born out of founder Beckie Taylor’s personal experience. She has spent 18 years in HR, 15 of them in the tech industry, helping employers to scale. At one company she was the only woman on the leadership team and eight years ago when she had her first child she became the first parent. She was in a unique leadership position in terms of understanding the challenges of transitioning back into such a fast-paced industry after a break. “I realised how it can affect you in terms of confidence. It led me to explore what support there was out there,” she says.

She co-founded the Women in Technology North community group in Manchester and over the last five years it has become the third largest women in tech organisation globally. The conversations about women’s experience in the industry that emerged made it very clear how little support there was for women returning to tech after a break.

Beckie joined forces with a former colleague, James Heggs, who, like her, had gone into consulting in 2017. They decided to explore what upskilling opportunities there were for people transitioning back into the industry.  They set up two pilot projects which highlighted the demand for support. They then had to work out a viable model to take the projects forward and decided that all the funding should come from the employers they worked with. They started speaking about what they were doing at different events, including one in Manchester. The talent lead for the BBC was there and looking for a project that addressed diversity and inclusion in tech. After further conversations, Tech Returners won the contract for the project against stiff competition from global training providers because its model addressed the barriers many returners faced, including cost and flexible learning, and because it aligned with the BBC’s values.

“I believe we provide an alternative talent solution in an untapped market,” says Beckie, adding that Tech Returners aims to educate employers about the value returners bring and focuses on the returner experience. “I have been through career breaks twice. Making companies aware that making the decision to come back may be daunting and that traditional recruitment may not address their confidence issues is vital,” she says.

How the programme works

To be eligible for the programme returners need to have had a career break of between nine months and eight years. They have to have established experience in software engineering and want to transition back to employment in the sector. Unlike some other returner programmes which offer short-term contracts or projects, Tech Returners programme ends with interviews for permanent roles with their partner employers.  Between 2020 and late 2021, they enabled over 61 people to return to careers in tech with 85% of people employed after completing the programme.

They offer two weeks of ‘mini sessions’ before the programme starts which aim to give people time to assess whether it is the right time for them to return. “We’d rather they go through these sessions and decide than have them start the programme and pull out,” says Beckie.

The programme lasts eight weeks with, typically, four weeks devoted to software fundamentals and four weeks to front or back end development, depending on the needs of the employer who is funding the programme. Half of the programme is given over to career support, such as helping to develop a growth mindset and confidence and resilience work through one-to-one coaching.

Tech Returners creates profiles for its returners rather than cvs. Beckie thinks the cv is outdated and biased against people who have taken a career break. “It doesn’t really tell you much about the individual,” she says, “and biases come into play.” She adds that returners often play down what they have done in their career break, including caring for people, volunteering or doing project work. “We want to create a document which gives a holistic view of the person and their skills,” she says, adding that the profiles are still being developed and Tech Returners is still learning, in partnership with the employers it works with, how to get the most out of them. “We have had lots of positive feedback. We want to be a game changer in the long term,” says Beckie.

Best for SMEs

Tech Returners was also voted Best for SMEs in the Top Employer Awards and the judges praised in particular its focus on training and hybrid working, including its use of asynchronous communications. They said: “There is a strong sense that Tech Returners treats its people like adults and does not micro manage them.” 

Tech Returners is a very flexible business that has been built around Beckie’s and James’ young families. Beckie is very clear that flexibility is not a one size fits all thing. During the pandemic, the company created a flexible working manifesto after a discussion of what flexible working means to its employees and how it can work better. The company uses asynchronous communications so people can catch up on group discussions when they can. Individuals set their status so everyone can see if they are not working at a particular time. If there is an urgent problem, Beckie is at the end of a phone.

Once a month everyone comes to the office for a team building day. All employees have keys to the office in Manchester and can use it when they want. One team member has relocated to Wales and another lives in London.

Onboarding is done in person and there are regular one-to-ones and a ‘feedback culture’ with employees having to get a piece of constructive feedback from someone on the team before each one-to-one meeting. Each member of the team is given a one thousand pound budget a year for personal development. This can be used for anything from career-based training to counselling or mental health help. The focus is on the individual as a whole as Beckie says all of this affects people’s performance. Tech Returners also has a book club and pays for a book a month for employees. In addition, there are ‘brown bag lunches’ to share learnings and monthly sessions on personal development.

Beckie says that the organisation’s agile structure means that it was able to adapt very quickly to the Covid lockdown.  It has also allowed the company to scale more as they previously did their returner programme in person. Indeed it is currently expanding from 14 employees to 17. “There are so many opportunities to change more people’s lives,” says Beckie. It has not all been easy, however. In the early days of the pandemic, several employers had recruitment freezes. The programme still continued, but Tech Returners put more into engaging with returners and finding out what they wanted to achieve. Employers also continued to provide information about working in their companies and what a typical day might look like. 

Beckie, who lost her father in the pandemic, says the experience has brought the team closer together. Last year the situation at the beginning of the pandemic flipped completely as employers worry about labour shortages. Tech Returners sold all its partnership programme slots early last year for the whole of 2022. “Demand is rife for tech talent and companies have come back stronger,” says Beckie, who says the company is looking to go international in the longer term. “It’s a very exciting time.”

*Profiles of all the winners of this year’s WM People Top Employer Awards will be published in our Best Practice Report coming soon.



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