Returner initiatives create ‘ripple effect’

Working Woman


Returner initiatives may generally take on small numbers of people – and the focus on quality over quantity is important – but these create a “ripple effect” which could normalise hiring people who have taken career gaps or not followed a set career trajectory, a forum heard yesterday.

The Returner Programmes Forum, organised by the Government Equalities Office, brought together employers and returner organisations to discuss the business case for taking on people who have taken an extended career break.

Some 2.1m people are not earning due to caring responsibilities, 90% of whom are women. It is estimated that 75% want to return to work at some point and that a quarter are women who have professional managerial experience.

Julianne Miles, co-founder of Women Returners, said the number of women wanting to return to their careers was likely to be much larger, given many are doing bits of freelance work or running their own business on the side of their caring role. Such women could also be eligible to take part in the returner initiatives that her organisation specialises in.

She described the different options for returners, from returnships to supported hiring. Returnerships offered a bridge back to work. They were three- to six-month programmes, paid at a professional level and giving returners the right level of experience, support and the likelihood of a permanent job. For employers they offered a hugely motivated talent pool brimming with skills, experience and maturity. Returners had a fresh perspective and provided a way of addressing the gender pay gap. Even with career gaps of up to 20 years, returners were up and running quickly.

Julianne had the idea for Women Returners in 2014, based on US returner programmes. The organisation started with the finance sector where there has historically been a problem with retaining women. It now works across sectors and organised a multi-organisation programme of finance sector companies in Scotland recently.  It is now looking to develop this model to work with SMEs and others.

Julianne says 80% of the companies who offer a returnship programme through Women Returners choose to extend it and between 50-100% of women get permanently hired at the end.

In addition to returnship programmes, some employers are offering supported hiring, whereby returners get hired as part of the normal recruitment process, but are offered extra coaching and mentoring.

Julianne says employers who are looking to take on returners need to look first at the business case, ensure it is clear that this is a talent initiative, get the support of senior managers, offer work that fits returners’ experience, prepare and train line managers, appoint senior internal champions, ensure there is available headcount, flexible working and support and offer professional-level pay.

She said returners would act as role models for other returners and for diversity which would have “a ripple effect” within their organisation.

Opening minds

Gail Bishop and Joanna Clarke, project managers of EY’s Reconnect programme, are about to host their fourth cohort of returners. Their programme lasts 12 weeks and around 50 people have been on it since it started. They have been placed in London as well as in Edinburgh and Manchester. Between 85% and 90% of returners have been hired to permanent roles.

Helen Lamprell, General Counsel of Vodafone, said a third of the people on their global Reconnect programme were men and she said men were good promoters of the initiatives. She too spoke about the ripple effect of the programme, how it is raising awareness about the value added by returners and helping to open minds about people who have taken career breaks. She also spoke of the need to educate recruitment partners that Vodafone was happy to consider returners.

Julie Thornton of Tideway spoke of being the first UK company outside of the financial services sector to run a returner programme. When the company was small and growing and looking to hire people with skills and to meet a diversity target set by the CEO, it sought out the talent pool represented by returners. It has since run three cohorts of returners who included people who wanted to change careers as well as those with long career gaps and is now looking at offering supported hiring for returners. The programme increased its diversity in terms of gender, but also age and experience. One step they had taken was to remove overspecific job descriptions with a paragraph about a candidate’s skills so the focus was on what they could deliver rather than on roles they had done recently.

Other speakers included Andrea Cheatle from LEK Consulting, an SME which offers returners supported hiring and Julie Mimnagh from Enfield Council which is on its second cohort. The first was so successful and the calibre of returners so high that managers had asked for double the number for the second cohort.

The speakers, several of whom had had career breaks themselves, were asked about how to make the scheme appealing to SMEs. The Government Equalities Office and Women’s Business Council has put together a toolkit for employers looking to hire returners and this has a section on returners and Julianne Miles said supported hiring did not require a lot of resources. Vodafone had invited SMEs to its returner events.

Other questions centred on pay levels, how to make schemes work for frontline workers and getting the word out to candidates.  The Government Equalities Office has recently issued best practice guidance on returner programmes.

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