What works for returner programmes?

Hand putting wooden cube block on blue background with word CAREER


Returner programmes for those who have taken career breaks are growing in popularity. The government announced five million pounds for them in the last Budget which shone a spotlight on them.

But they are still concentrated mainly in the financial sector, where they originated in response to a lack of women managers, and those in other sectors have generally not been in operation for long.

So now is a good time to look at what works. A new report by Executive Coaching Consultancy, Bringing talent back to the workforce, looks at the different types of returner programmes and provides some case studies and also reports on a survey of returnees on what they think is important.

The survey is based on responses from 203 people who are either “aspiring returners” or have already returned to work. While respondents came from over 15 industry sectors, 96% were female and over 70% were aged between 35-48.

The research shows that returners valued returner initiatives, with direct hire to a permanent role unsurprisingly being the preferred route back. They said coaching was important as were supportive line managers and a supportive family.

Across all groups surveyed childcare and the ability to balance work with caring responsibilities remained the biggest obstacle to returning to work with nearly three quarters of all respondents citing childcare as the principal reason for leaving employment. Over half of aspiring returners said childcare was a highly challenging practical constraint on them returning to work. A third felt guilty about having less time for their loved ones and 20% said they were struggling to integrate their personal and professional identities.  Most were also worried about availability of flexible working and about achieving a work life balance and networking.

The majority of returners went back to work in a different function before taking a career break, with 38% changing industry sector. Some 59% said their current job offers more flexibility than the one they had prior to taking a career break.

The report details the three main types of returner programmes and their pluses and minuses:

The returner conference/seminar

This was good for helping returners decide if a return to work was right for them, providing interview skills, giving employers an idea of the talent on offer, raising the employer’s profile as part of a corporate social responsibility issue and creating a talent pool of ready returners. However, it was less good for gaining firm commitments from line managers to support this population in general and focused recruitment activity if used alone.

The temporary work placement

This was good for creating a structured approach to identifying returners; assessing whether the fit is right without the employer having to make a permanent commitment upfront; developing skills and confidence in the workplace; and cohort support. It was less good for organisations where line managers have yet to be convinced of the value of supporting returners, where it can be easy to go along with a centrally funded ‘scheme’ for a few months without truly committing to them; line managers who do not understand and cannot support the unique needs of returners, particularly flexibility; and returners who have had to make arrangements for childcare, which may be disrupted again if a permanent job isn’t secured at the end of the placement.

Direct entry / permanent roles

These were good for allowing adequate time for returners to adapt, thrive and perform successfully; securing commitment from line managers from the outset; helping returners to feel fully accepted and integrated into the organisation and to not feel temporary and ‘on trial’; giving the returner a fair opportunity to contribute against realistic responsibilities and accountabilities; allowing the returner a realistic length of time to settle back in; helping a returner to fully commit and make permanent caring arrangements for their family; and demonstrating the organisation’s credentials to the wider workforce as a family-friendly employer. They were less good for organisations who were at the beginning of the returner journey as hiring for permanent roles without an initiative to engage managers could prove difficult and for organisations that haven’t considered what support a returner might need to minimise the risk of them leaving.

The report says things to consider for employers include recognising the need for specific support for returners, choosing a programme that is right for the organisation, offering flexible working and educating and supporting managers.

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