Welcoming back returners

A returner conference gave some practical advice and presented a positive outlook for those looking to get back to work after a career break.

Returner Programme


More and more employers are looking to hire people who have taken a career break and come to the workplace with a fresh perspective, a returners conference heard yesterday.

The Women Returners annual conference heard that more and more employers were opting for returner initiatives and were aware of the skills offered by those who had taken career breaks.

The conference, which took place in London, was packed with around 200 women who were looking for practical advice on how to return to work.

The day included coaching and cv sessions as well as workshops, panel discussions and the chance to talk to various employers.

Julianne Miles, CEO of Women Returners, led a practical session on how to narrow career searches so they include “a manageable range of options”.

She highlighted the need to make compromises and trade-offs, be flexible [especially about flexible working], be creative and use any networks available.

She mentioned how returners can ‘get stuck’ in various ways, for instance, considering too many options, using a scattergun approach to applications or waiting to ‘find their passion’ or perfect job.

She said it was useful to know why they wanted to return to work – was it due to the social buzz of work, using their qualifications, mental stimulation, being a good role model, fulfilling their ambition or a host of other reasons? Miles said women often said it was for the money, but it was important to interrogate the reasons fully and to admit, for instance, that they were still ambitious. “People say women are less ambitious after they have children. That is rubbish,” she said.

After finding out why they want to go back to work, the next question to address was what work might be appropriate.This could be done through asking what job returners might find to be fulfilling work, work that plays to their strengths [from positivity and organisational skills to networking and relationship building], their interests and their work values, which could include self development, creativity, work life balance or a whole host of other issues.

Several people in the audience asked about part-time work and Miles said she advised returners not to be too rigid about the form flexible working could take. Many organisations offered more homeworking now, which made full-time work easier, for instance.

She said it was important that, once a range of possible options had been arrived at, it was put to a reality test – through talking to people who worked in the relevant sectors, going to relevant conferences and asking for work experience to test the waters.  She told returners to be creative, use their networks and ask about transferable skills.

Returner experiences

Her coaching session followed a panel discussion of five returners chaired by the BBC’s Jane Garvey who gave the keynote and spoke about the need for women to support each other. The panel was varied and mirrored a similar panel of employers who offered returner programmes held later in the day. It included a doctor, a local authority programme manager and three women from the private sector, one who is at EY, another at JP Morgan and another at a smaller technology services company. Several spoke of the struggle to get back in and of recruiters telling them they were ‘too old’ and had ‘lost their edge’.

One, Tontschy Gerig had planned to take a year out from her job in international HR and ended up being out for three. She called the EY returner programme “a life saver”. She had applied for over 500 jobs and only had one interview before that.  She admitted to being in despair and feeling “written off”. She is now a senior manager at EY.

Similarly Yemi Morgan-Raiwe, programme manager of Enfield Council’s flagship regeneration project Meridian Water,  had spent a year and a half sending out her cv “into the void”. At 52, she felt her career was over until she found the council’s returner programme outlined in a news advert she would not normally have read. She said that ad had transformed her life. Before she got back to work, she had found it difficult to get up the motivation to get out of bed after so many knockbacks. “I was at a crisis point. I didn’t know who I was,” she said.

Jodie Bonner, whose background is in law, had attended a Women Returners conference in 2017 and had no idea what a returnship was at the time. By 2018 she was on a programme and is now Head of Business Management for EMEA Compliance at JP Morgan after a five-year break.

Jackie Simpson, who had years of experience in telecoms in change and transformation roles, spoke of finding her way back through an ex-colleague who offered her a job via LinkedIn. She went back on three days a week nearly three years ago and is now manager director of technology services company Cistor.

Rachel Rummery had a 12-year break from the medical profession and found it difficult to get back as there was no formal returner programme for doctors. Now at Leeds NHS Trust, she is about to take up a fellowship to look into how the medical profession can support returners better.

All those who came back on returner initiatives said they had felt supported through buddies, mentors and a positive work culture. Most admitted to feeling nervous in the first days back and lacking in confidence. Gerig said she had set herself unrealistic standards to achieve. Several said they felt they had to prove themselves. But for all of them the experience had been positive and they had very soon slotted back into working life, including adapting to technology changes.

Morgan-Raiwe said it was important not to underestimate the transferable skills many women honed during time out of the workplace in addition to their previous career skills. “You are a project manager with your children. You are everything to your family…You have plenty of skills.”


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