‘Returner initiatives need to be across all sectors and nationwide’

Nicola Salvatore took a five-year career break after being diagnosed with cancer following the birth of her daughter.

Previously a vice president at an investment bank, it was not until the beginning of 2015 that she felt ready to approach people she had worked with previously to find out about work opportunities and the possibility of getting back to her former career. A close friend forwarded her details about Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Returning Talent programme and encouraged her to apply. A few months after completing the programme she secured a job as a risk manager at the bank.

She says: “The programme gave me so much confidence and all the participants still meet up regularly and we give each other advice or recommend useful business connections. For any woman starting to think about going back to work, it is incredibly positive.”

The Returning Talent programme, now in its fifth year, is one of the first initiatives for people who have taken a career break. Around 200 people have taken part so far and many have gone on to get jobs, either at BofAML or other companies. BofAML doesn’t have detailed individual follow-up data for all those who have taken part because their original focus was not on the number of people placed but on helping people to reconnect to the world of work. However, over half of those who took part in last year’s programme have secured a job.

Since it started several other companies have set up returner programmes, with a big percentage doing so in the last year. A real momentum is building, in large part due to the efforts of two women, Katerina Gould and Julianne Miles. They set up Women Returners in 2014 to make the business case for supporting female professionals who have taken a career break back into the workplace and to provide their expertise in how to do so. Many of the new returner initiatives are the result of their work.

While returner initiatives started in the financial services sector, they are now spreading to other areas. One of the most recently launched one is O2’s, for which Women Returners is providing advice and support, but there have been returner initiatives launched by global real estate advisers Cushman & Wakefield, international architecture firm AJ120 and the Back2Businessship initiative covers advertising. Many of those launched last year are now going into their second year, including one run by Tideway, the London-based utility company programme. The initiatives range from programmes aimed at building confidence and updating skills to returnships [paid internships for returners] and supported jobs. Last year saw the launch of the first cross-business returner pilot, the HitReturn programme, offered by Mars, Centrica and Vodafone.

Even SMEs have been inspired to look to returners, for instance, technology consultancy firm DMW Group launched a returner initiative last autumn. One of the main catalysts has been the need to attract more women to sectors such as finance and technology.

So far, many are concentrated in London and the southeast, but some such as Lloyds Banking Group’s and the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development’s Steps Ahead programme are nationwide. Steps Ahead is not sector-specific and matches returners with HR mentors who can help with, for instance, writing cvs, job search and interview practice.

Could they be replicated more broadly across different sectors and regions? The success of programmes like BofAML suggests there is a big demand from returners and that a growing number of employers are waking up to the benefits of tapping this talent pool.

Workingmums.co.uk has a returners section which lists details of many of the latest returner initiatives.

For those looking to return after a career break, the following tips have been gleaned from a variety of career experts and from interviews with returners:

Confidence: lack of confidence can be a huge barrier if you have taken years out of the workforce, but all your previous experience is still there as well as the experience you have gained since having children. Every successful returner we have spoken to has had confidence issues and as soon as they are back in the saddle they say it is like they had never left.

Tap up your networks: including friends, family and former employers/colleagues. Exploit social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn.

Do a skills-based cv rather than a chronological one

Consider freelance, project-based or self-employed work as a way back in

Brush up your skills with refresher courses. This is also a good way of meeting up with others who are in the same situation so you can help each other.

*A version of this article first appeared on The Guardian’s Women in Leadership site.

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