Employers Tap Into a New Talent Pool - Women Returners

Why the sudden burst of initiatives? Partly it's due to the work of coaching team Women Returners who have partnered with Opportunity Now to develop "returnships" - short-term paid positions, project-based, typically with training and mentoring support.

Almost every week for the last few months and sometimes a few times in a week a new scheme is announced for women returners - women who have taken a career break, generally to raise children, and who want to get back into the workplace.

Last week it was Lloyds Bank. The week before was Deloitte and the week before global real estate advisers Cushman & Wakefield and earlier in May Bloomberg announced a returners initiative.

Most are concentrated in the financial services sector where the idea first originated in the US, with companies like Bank of America Merrill Lynch having run their UK programme since 2012.

However, Thames Tideway Tunnel, a major project to clean up the River Thames in London, was the first to launch a scheme outside of the banking sector earlier this year. It was followed by Cushman & Wakefield's announcement in May of the first scheme in the real estate sector. The Chartered Institute for Personnel Development also recently launched a new mentoring pilot programme for women returners whatever their profession.

Why the sudden burst of initiatives? Partly it's due to the work of coaching team Women Returners who have partnered with Opportunity Now to develop "returnships" - short-term paid positions, project-based, typically with training and mentoring support.

Returnships were pioneered by Goldman Sachs in the US and the company has hired around 50% of its 120 programme participants since 2008.

Women Returners say the programmes offer the opportunity for employers to access a largely untapped pool of high-calibre experienced and motivated women and get over the concerns of some hiring managers about their lack of recent experience.

Return to work

Financial services are an obvious first port of call since they have been quick to notice the impact of women leaving the industry after having children and many companies have launched programmes to recruit and retain women. But many other sectors suffer from a lack of women at the senior management level due to women taking time out after having children.

So what do the schemes offer? Some are designed just to prepare women for returning to work while others include paid internships and the possibility of permanent positions. Some are London-based and others are nationwide.

Most involve participants receiving training, mentoring, networking opportunities and assistance with attaining new skills and rebuilding professional confidence to aid their transition back into the workplace. However, there are subtle differences between programmes.

The Bloomberg Returner Circle is a London-based initiative targeting women with experience in the financial services industry and provides support and information, together with an initial exploration of opportunities at Bloomberg.

The CIPD's Steps Ahead programme matches returners with HR mentors who can help with, for instance, writing cvs, job search and interview practice.

Deloitte's return-to-work scheme, which runs from September to December, targets more senior female leaders and offers a 12-week paid internship to women who have been out of the workforce for between three and six years. In the first year, it will only be to Deloitte alumni and the ambition is for 80% of participants to take up longer-term roles with the firm at the end of their internship.

Lloyds Banking Group's nationwide Returners programme also targets senior women - and men - who have taken a career break for more than two years. They will work across client facing, change management and delivery roles. It also has a unique focus on agile working, with a number of new positions being undertaken by returners on reduced and flexible hours. After an initial 10-week placement, there is the possibility of a permanent position in the company.

Uphill battle

The programmes recognise that women who have taken a career break often face an uphill battle trying to get back into the workforce, particularly if they want to get back in anywhere near the level they left at. Many are forced to retrain. However, now that we are having to work longer and woman have also amassed a number of years of experience before they start a family it makes no sense to waste their skills.

One woman who can vouch for that is Sally Shaw, Business Support Lead, Corporate Audit at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She took part in Bank of America Merrill Lynch's third Returning Talent programme in 2014 which helped her get a senior job in the financial sector after she had taken a career break from her job as senior internal auditor at JP Morgan Chase in 2001.

She was looking for some reassurance that returning to work was the right decision for her family and for her and for some advice as to how to present her 13-year career gap without this appearing potentially negative to prospective employers. It was also important for her to learn how to reconnect with the working environment and to know how to sell the skills she already possessed through her previous work experience. The programme not only gave her time to reflect and to consider what she wanted to do, but ultimately led to her present position.

Her example is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds and hundreds of women who are keen to get back to work and to use the skills they already have, often from 10 plus years in their profession. Many have developed additional skills from their time on a career break, looking after their children and managing their family. These skills are often underestimated, but are often the very soft skills and management capabilities that employers are crying out for - communication, time management and organisation.

The announcement of more returners' programmes is good news, but there is a need for more of them, with a nationwide focus and representing a greater diversity of sectors and for employers in general to wake up to a much neglected talent pool.