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Employers need to find ways to scale up returner programmes and normalise the hiring of returners as part of the recruitment process, a conference organised by Women Returners heard yesterday.
Tricia Nelson, Head of Talent for the Advisory arm of EY in the UK and Ireland, said what had shocked her about her experience of returner programmes was that so many women did not feel confident enough to apply for jobs in the normal way. “There are potentially hundreds or thousands of women who would not apply for our jobs if it was not for our returner programmes. That terrifies me. We have to scale this in a different way,” she said.
One of the problems was lack of confidence, but another issue highlighted by the conference was a recruitment process that was filtering out people with career gaps, with recruitment agencies a particular problem area.
The conference heard from a variety of returners who had taken different routes back to work, from those who had started their own businesses to those who had done returner programmes. The issues that kept coming up as barriers were lack of confidence, childcare and flexible working.
The conference was told returners should not undersell themselves, should recognise their past work experience and the skills they had gained during their career break and should be open and flexible.
A new survey by Women Returners found more than a third of returners [36%] feel they will have to take a demotion or pay cut to get back to work. Some 87 per cent said they wanted flexible working on their return, though only 17 per cent said part-time working was essential for them.
Speakers assured women that progress was being made for returners and that there was a real interest in returners from employers, driven by a strong business case which recognised the talent and experience that they offered. The number of returner programmes was increasing and spanned many sectors.
There were none in 2013 and there were over 40 this year, said Julianne Miles, co-founder of Women Returners. There had been a lot of growth and she got an email every day from employers interested in having their own returner programme.
The Civil Service, for instance, has launched its own returner programme this week. Sharmini Selvarajah, Head of the Returners Policy Team at the Government Equalities Office and in charge of the five million pound government money for returner initiatives, said the government was commissioning research on what worked in returner initiatives, was doing workshops with employers and looking at how to create sustainable opportunities as well as running its own programme. She said her role was also to get the message out to others about why employers should hire returners and raise awareness.
Many employers had only just started returner programmes and were in the early days of seeing what worked best. The conference highlighted issues such as giving regular feedback on return to work. Employers said that programmes often started in one part of the business and they were interested to see how they could scale that up across the business and how they could get line managers on board.
The conference, which was attended by hundreds of women, offered a sense of community to those who had taken a career gap and also had practical advice for returners on how to write their cvs and how to go about deciding what jobs or returner programmes to apply for. Miles said they needed to understand why they wanted to return to work – their key motivators – and what they wanted to do – what their interests and skills were – before they thought about how to get back to work.
The keynote speech was given by Avril Martindale from the 30% Club. She said the returner agenda was linked to the ongoing push for diversity as it was helping to build the pipeline. “You are doing employers a favour coming back to the workplace and helping them to improve their pipeline,” she said.
She quoted a friend who said to her: “All workers should be returners at some point. They will end up more productive and innovative as a result.”
Julianne Miles also picked up on the creativity theme. She summed up: “The world is slowly changing. We are trying to create lots of routes back to work for people, but it is up to you to find the routes that work for you. You will get there. You need to believe in yourselves and value yourselves. You may also have to create your own opportunities if they are not there. There is no linear route back. You can create change and become the next returner role models.”