Time to think about career returners

Career returners
July 5, 2023

Let me share a few statistics. In the UK today there are 10 million women working full time, and a further 6 million women working part time. A total of 1.5 million women are on a career break for caring reasons. Of these, 427,000 are highly qualified.*

 It is estimated that the cost to UK plc of not employing these highly qualified women is £1.7 billion pounds. 


 It’s a very sad reflection on our recruitment industry that these women are not being snapped up. If you haven’t ridden a bike for a few years, do you forget how to ride one?

We all know the answer is no.

The experience of working is no different. These women haven’t had a lobotomy. They haven’t forgotten their many years of experience or skills they have honed. In fact, having taken a career break they will be returning to the workplace the richer for it, with additional skills, experiences and with the motivation and ambition to work hard and achieve results. These are all assets to be exploited by their future employer. Given our labour shortage and the need for organisations to address their female talent pipeline at mid to senior positions, companies should be actively seeking these women out.

 And yet they’re not. I get that the complexities of working are a tad more complicated than riding a bike. But the positions that these highly capable women are capable of securing will come with a standard probationary period of 3 - 6 months, ample time to bring a returner up to speed and assess their ability to do the role properly.

Last week Metrobank asked me to come and talk to their executive committee about the opportunities and challenges of hiring a career returner. The best way that I could do service to this opportunity was to bring with me some returners from the 2to3days community and have an open discussion and that’s what I did. Olivia Ashfield, Sonal R. and Joanna Brod stepped up and volunteered their time to give a ringside account of the barriers they face in trying to reignite their careers. It was an eye-opening session for Metrobank filled with actionable insights that I wanted to share with you all here. 

 The barriers and what needs to be done to remove them 

  1. The need/perception of having to go back full time.

 It is a misnomer that all returners don’t want to work full time. A lot do. But what they don’t want to do is to go back to the way they had to work in the past – full time in the office – which forced them to leave in the first place. That way of working is rapidly dying out and hybrid working is here to stay. Companies are also continuing to reduce their office floor print.

 The fact is that recruiters are not on a returner's side. They frequently say - ‘Don’t kid yourself, it’s a competitive market out there and you will have to go back full time. Our client will find someone who hasn’t had a career break who will want to work full time so there is no point putting your name forward.’ The phone goes down and all comms are cut.

No wonder these women feel unwanted.

 Recruiters are the gatekeepers to job opportunities so unless clients actively ask their recruiters to put forward returners this behaviour is not going to change.

 2. The lack of the right information on job adverts puts returners off from applying

 ●    Explain your flexible working culture. What do you mean by hybrid or flexible working?

●    If you are open to hiring a returner then include it in your job advert - ‘We welcome and support returners applying for this role’

●    Explain the application process. Too often the whole thing is completely opaque, which simply fuels anxiety. A simple explanation is all that is required. Also state the closing date and time and stick to it. I hear stories all the time of clients closing the application deadline early. Returners will take a great deal of time and effort to apply to your roles. Therefore by default they intentionally elect to submit their application at the eleventh hour!

●    Advertise these vacancies on job boards that target this niche of talent, like 2to3days and or Women Returners. This speaks volumes to the candidates

●    List the technology used to perform the role and what training is available.

 3. Information on company's websites

 Provide case studies of other career returners and if you don’t have any but are keen to attract some, say so.

4. The interview

The biggest issue that I see is that hiring managers and recruiters interview returners alongside candidates who haven’t taken a career break. They ask questions that compare their experience, skill set, market knowledge, the size of their black book and the ability to use the latest technology, without making any allowances for the two completely different sets of circumstances. This approach is doomed to fail.

 Instead, companies should ask returners competency and behavioural based questions which will allow them to draw on their previous experience and demonstrate their ability, skill, knowledge, and adaptability.

 5. Support 

 Like all new recruits, returners need support from the company to settle in as quickly as possible. The list below are the things that are particularly pertinent to a returner.

 ●    Colleagues

It’s in both parties' interest to support the returner to settle into their new role as quickly as possible. The process can quickly come unstuck if their line manager isn’t on board or equipped to support the returner. It can be very helpful to create a buddy system and/or give them a sponsor in the organisation.

 ●    Technology 

A long career break will inevitably entail a knowledge gap, but most technology can be trained well within the probationary window. Technology is changing fast so if companies want more in depth knowledge among that prized cohort of older women, then they should be prepared to invest in the right training.

 ●    Market knowledge

A returner who is well prepped for their interview will have done as much desktop research as they can but realistically cannot be expected to know as much about the finer detail of the market as those still active in it. Therefore, at the interview stage companies should ask questions that enable the returner to demonstrate that they have the aptitude and appetite to fast track their knowledge.

 ●    Their network 

Again, in all likelihood this will not be as strong as someone who hasn’t had a career break. People also move on and change roles/sectors. So, the role of their line manager, buddy and/or sponsor should be to help them reignite their network by simply creating the opportunity to meet the relevant people.

None of what I have shared is rocket science; it’s all common sense and easy to implement.

Celebrating the changemakers

2to3days has successfully helped women secure roles in The Home Office, Shell, Virgin, Morgan Stanley and many more. 40% of our database comprises women who have taken a career break so come and talk to us if you keen to hire some into your organization.

 Thatworksforme have created an accrediation scheme for employers so that they can support their female staff to take care of their children and stay at work.

*Source: ONS & PwC

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