Paula McAleavey spent 17 years working in the telecoms industry after studying engineering at university. Nine years ago she left a good job at Vodafone after her sister died suddenly. Like Paula, her sister had had children and had been keen to spend as much time with them as possible. Her death in 2005 and the feeling that her own daughters were at a point where they needed emotional support more as they moved into secondary school made Paula and her husband think about what they really wanted for their children. They started planning when financially it might make sense for Paula to make a career change to teaching.
Paula had always thought about teaching and felt it would allow her to be with her daughters more. In 2007, there was a reorganisation at her work which meant she could get some redundancy money. That allowed her to do a PGCE and she then spent the next seven years teaching at a school near her daughters’ so they could travel together in the morning.
Paula loved teaching, but it was not as flexible as she had imagined. “It was hard to get time off and that lack of flexibility was a bit of a revelation, although the school holidays were good,” she says.
As her youngest daughter approached GCSEs, Paula felt flexibility in her job was increasingly important. She also missed engineering so she decided to start looking at a return to her previous career.
She sent her cv off to lots of places, but received only standard rejection letters almost immediately after the deadline closed.
A colleague suggested she look at education publishing since they valued recent teaching experience as well as industry expertise. She was also told that she would not get a job in engineering if teaching was the last thing on her cv.
She got a job at the publisher Pearson and after the first year started applying for engineering positions again. “I thought having worked in the private sector would stand me in good stead, but it didn’t,” she says. Then her husband Patrick, who works at O2, sent her a link to information about the company’s returner programme. “Initially I didn’t think it was for me as I didn’t think of myself as a returner because I hadn’t had a career break. I thought why can’t they just give me a job and recognise my skills,” says Paula.
She registered for the programme’s assessment day and found there were a varied group of people who had come along, including women who had left industry due to childcare issues and others who had set up charities or run their own business. Participants were told to focus on questions such as who they were and what they were good at and were paired up. “It taught me that it was not just about selling myself, but about taking a step back before I did that,” says Paula. She left the assessment day feeling that maybe the returner programme was for her.
Participants were not lacking in confidence generally, but there was a feeling that things had changed in the sector and perhaps in what companies were looking for. Some were worried about being older, but Paula says O2 is open to people of different backgrounds and ages.
The assessment day included mentoring, relaxed individual interviews, group networking and a chance to see around the company.
Paula started the 14-week paid returnship programme slightly later than other participants because she had to hand in her notice. By then any teething problems had been sorted. She got access to all the right people, was assigned a mentor and buddy and a project. The programme was also designed in a way that gave participants the ability to see a range of activities within the organisation to get an idea of where they would like to work best.
“It’s a two-way opportunity to test things,” says Paula. Originally O2 had been planning to offer places to six people, but they were so impressed they took on 12. Everyone was offered a role after the programme and eight took up permanent placements.
Paula finished the placement in July and was offered a job as Network Domain Lead Project Manager. Her role involves acting as the bridge between the strategy team and the different infrastructure areas within the network. Like many in O2 she works flexibly which helps with family commitments – her two daughters are grown up, but Paula and her husband do voluntary work for hearing dogs and have to pick up and drop off the dog.
Paula says her confidence has increased a lot after so many knock-backs. “Once you have been knocked back so many times you do start to wonder if you have done the right thing by trying to do the right thing by your family. After the programme, though, i felt my background was of interest and my skills were valued.”
She would like to see other employers realise how much talent they might be missing out on from not opening up how they recruit and looking at potential rather than what someone is doing now.
Since she has started her permanent role at O2 she says the company has made sure she meets up with people she has worked with before. She had been worried about what they might think about her, but has found that the links have worked to her advantage. “It feels a bit like coming home,” she says.
*O2’s second returner programme closes for applications today.