There has been a flurry of media interest in returnships over the past week after the Chancellor announced £5m for them in the Budget.
Although they have been around for years – the first was created in the US by Goldman Sachs in 2008 – returnships have taken off in the UK in recent years with new programmes now being announced regularly.
While in the early days they tended to be focused on the finance sector because of its problems with retaining women, they have now spread out to other sectors, from education and local government to advertising and technology.
But there is still a lack of information about what they are and what works. For instance, returnships are just one of a raft of returner initiatives on offer and not all function the same.
One organisation which is trying to find out more about best practice is The Executive Coaching Consultancy which is launching a survey this week, backed by Workingmums.co.uk, to look behind the headlines.
Managing Director Geraldine Gallacher says: “We think the word returnship is getting bandied around in a generic way as if all the programmes are the same. There are lots of different formats for career returners.”
She adds that it is also assumed that returner initiatives are for women when 5-10% of their coachees are men.
The company is interested to hear from those who are thinking of taking part in a returner initiative or have already experienced one to see whether the initiatives matched their expectations and what they actually needed if and when they got back to work. “We want to know if the things they worry about when they are thinking of going back to work are what they actually need support for. We want to know what was helpful,” says Geraldine.
She has spoken to people who have been on more than one returner initiative and says that means they can compare the different approaches. Geraldine thinks the main support needed is psychological, centring around confidence building and personal development skills such as how to work your network. “It can’t just be like a graduate induction programme, bringing people up to speed on technical and business issues. There is a lot of trepidation about going back and leaving your family, about still having caring responsibilities and needing flexibility and about personal identity issues,” she says. “When you have a baby and go on maternity leave your identity changes and going back after years out of the workplace is another big identity change. We coach thousands of maternity returners, most of whom have had up to nine months off and it is tough enough going back. Returning after five or more years is a wholly different thing.”
She sees some dangers in employers jumping on the bandwagon of returner programmes without an underpinning of data on what works. For instance, they might think that returners are an easy way of getting more women into an organisation without having to worry about flexible working because their children are older. That is not the case, though, she says. Parents of older children may still need flexibility and there may be other reasons, such as caring for older parents, that mean flexible working is still vital.
The survey will enable The Executive Coaching Consultancy to pass on best practice tips to employers about the design of their programmes and how women see the different types of returner initiatives, ranging from returnships which last for a few months and allow women and employers a trial period but which might not lead to a job at the end to direct entry initiatives resulting in a guaranteed job.
Geraldine says: “We are interested in what happens to people if there is not a job at the end of the returner initiative. We are worried there is a danger that employers might see it as a failure if they don’t understand the nature of the returnship.”
Another concern is that the type of work a returner gets on a short-term trial might be very project-based and not be the equivalent of what they would do if they had a “proper” job. Geraldine is also interested in whether returners who did get a job had to change industry or function, whether they got flexible working if they needed it and whether they took a cut in salary. “There could be a danger we reinforce the gender pay gap if women returners come back at salaries that are well below their abilities and experience,” she says.
What is clear is that returner initiatives are maturing and that that means there is more room for in-depth research on what works. “It is becoming a more sophisticated market,” says Geraldine. “We need to consider the ramifications of what we are doing and what the overall aim is.”
*The Survey is now closed and the results will be published shortly.