Returning to work after a 7-year break: ask the expert

I have a Manufacturing Engineering degree and 15 years’ experience in industry. I have been out of the workplace for 7 years. The only way back into work I have come up with is to assess NVQs in Engineering, but it’s hard to find something locally that is school hours. Any suggestions?

I agree it is very hard to fit paid work into school hours and I could have a very long rant about the archaic school hours/holidays system which we have to shoehorn our lives as working women around. The system is historically derived, from when working-class children were needed by their families to help gather in the harvest and work on the farm or in the factory and was given as a concession to industry, in exchange for their ‘allowing’ children to attend the newly-free and compulsory schooling of the 1877 Education Act.

Isn’t it about time we had a change of ‘tradition’ that fits in with modern life?

But back to your situation. You are obviously highly qualified and experienced but are now facing the dilemma of every well-educated working woman – how do I earn a living and be there for the family? It is a fact that part-time work tends to be regarded as less worthy and therefore less lucrative than full-time positions, with the attendant difficulties of low-status and low-pay making it an option for those who really have no other choice. But this fails to meet the needs of women like ourselves – people who have a professional contribution to make to the economy but also a wonderful personal contribution to society as mothers of the next generation. It is as if a subtle message is being delivered with the job advert – be committed to your job or be committed to your family, we don’t believe you can do both (and we won’t let you try).  As someone who has been struggling with this myself for fifteen years, I know the mantra by heart!

NVQ assessing is a good option for you, given your circumstances, although I sense that you feel a little disappointed that this appears to be your only avenue to pursue. I trained as an NVQ assessor many years ago (albeit reluctantly) but I have never regretted achieving the qualification as it has enabled me to have flexible part-time work over the years, at a reasonable rate of pay. It also has the advantage of keeping one’s hand in your own professional field until you are able to rejoin the full-time workplace, as well as offering opportunities for continual professional development.

An NVQ assessor will typically have a caseload of learners in her particular subject (anything from 5 -30 people, depending on how much of a commitment you wish to make) and be responsible for observing, checking and signing off ‘competencies’ which the learner has achieved, usually in the workplace. The job is flexible and you generally make your own appointments with the learner to observe and sign-off. There is a good deal of record-keeping involved as the learner will have a portfolio of evidence which you will submit for her qualification, so it is important to be well-organised. It is generally a pleasant job as most learners are well-motivated but sometimes you will have to provide encouragement to people who find the qualification difficult or time-consuming – and that is not always easy!

Be warned, however, that rates of pay depend on the level of qualification being pursued (the higher the level, the more money) and whether or not you are being paid by the hour or by portfolio. I personally refuse portfolio payment work because if your candidate fails to complete, you don’t get paid anything – or else end up giving your time away to help fill the portfolio! However, a completed portfolio can be worth about £250 – 300, possibly more, and because payment is in a lump sum (multiply that by the number of learners on your caseload) the work can appear lucrative. But take into account how much time you will need to spend on each learner and your hourly rate may work out much less than if the training providers paid you an hourly rate from the start. The training providers know this (that’s how they make their money, on completed portfolios which the government subsidises) and they do not like bearing the cost of assessor hours with no return. But then why should you be the one to bear the cost in unpaid time?

If you do find a company paying hourly rates, they tend to be from £15 an hour upwards (London area). Full-time positions (sometimes offering a car if the geographical spread is wide) pay around £25K in the south-east.

Further information on becoming an assessor (known as the A1 award) can be found through your local college or training provider. The process is fairly short and you will go through the same NVQ process as your learners to achieve the award, so you will soon understand the system.

I hope this helps you weigh up your options but if you would like further help, you may wish to meet a careers advisor to go through your situation in more depth and explore ideas. Good luck.

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