Career 2.0 - managing the Returners

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett October 23, 2017
“Returnships” are perfect for employers keen to tap into rarely-plundered talent pools, in this case parents wanting to return to work after a career break. But how sound an option are they for tech employers keen to win in the war for talent?

To mark International Women’s Day earlier this year, UK Prime Minister Theresa May caused ripples of excitement among diversity professionals when she announced plans to set up a £5 million fund to encourage the wider adoption of so-called “returnship” programmes.

Returnships are high-level internships that are intended to support experienced professionals - of either gender, although the majority of participants in such schemes are women - in getting back into mid-level or senior roles following a career break.

They consist of short-term employment contracts, which generally last for between three and six months. Participants undertake commercially significant work based on their skills and experience and are paid at professional rates.

And the approach is certainly finding favour in a number of quarters, particularly among government officials. Research by management consultancy PwC may shed some light on why – the study attests that, if the career break issue could be tackled effectively, the UK’s economy would be boosted to the tune of £1.7 billion, the equivalent of a £4,000 annual earnings increase for each returner.

The returnship concept, meanwhile, was first introduced to the world in 2008 by Goldman Sachs, which also took the precaution of trademarking the term. It has since been taken up mainly by other financial services and professional services firms, but also some telcos and one or two of the more established tech vendors.

In a bid to put its money where its mouth is and encourage further adoption elsewhere, the UK Government also launched a returnships programme of its own in August. The initiative kicked off with four separate public sector schemes for civil servants, social workers, teachers and allied health professionals such as physiotherapists, which will all be funded out of the £5 million pot announced by May and earmarked in this year’s Budget.

To further demonstrate the Government’s seriousness about making returnships a routine means of getting parents back into the workplace, it also launched an eight-week public call for evidence to enable both employers and individuals to share their thoughts on how best to support people in returning to work, particularly in the private sector. The consultation closes on 29 October.

But Geraldine Gallacher, managing director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy (ECC), believes that the government is already pushing against an open door:

The big skills gap coming our way, which in the UK will be intensified by Brexit, means that we’re going to see a lot more returners programmes springing up, especially in tech as employers are simply going to run out of people to hire and retrain. They’re also a good way of helping to improve gender diversity and of tackling ageism, which are both on the agenda at the moment.

But Gallacher is not convinced that returnships per se are necessarily the way forward. According to a report published earlier this year by ECC entitled ‘Bringing talent back to the workforce: How to make returner programmes work for your organisation’, nearly three quarters of the 203 women questioned believed that being hired directly into a permanent role was the most effective means of getting back into work.

Returnships were favoured by only 14% of respondents, and a mere 13% of returners had actually found a job using this approach. This figure contrasts with the 86% who were direct hires. Gallacher says:

The issue seems to be that, if you’re trying to get back into work but have care commitments, and an internship is six months full-time but has no guarantee of employment at the end, it’s going to put you off. So what some companies are starting to do is look at shorter returners’ programmes that fit around their needs in a similar way to graduate recruitment schemes. The returners’ programme is positioned as a trial placement so that people can see if they like the company and want to work there, and it’s a great opportunity for the employer to try them out too by seeing how they get on working on a project. The downside for the employee though is that they won’t know if they’ve secured a job until the end and the fear is that, if they don’t, there’ll be a stigma attached.

As to whether returnships are likely to make much difference to the number of women who work in the tech industry overall, Amanda Fone, chief executive of F1 Recruitment, which puts together an annual returners programme, believes at the very least, they have the potential to contribute to much-needed change.

F1’s Back2businessship programme provides participants with six days-worth of intensive workshops on topics such as career planning, presentation skills and how to get to grips with new technology. On the last day, candidates undertake a “speed dating-style” interview process with a range of interested employers. But as Fone points out:

People always talk about creating a pipeline of talent, but you have to think about things long-term, not just over the next two to three years. It’s about making the tech sector more attractive to women over the course of their professional life, but to do that you have to make it female career-friendly. Employers need to demonstrate that women can get in, stay in and get on in tech so a returners programme of whatever type could be pivotal to demonstrating a commitment to that.

An insight into Capgemini UK’s returners’ programme

While returnships are unlikely to be magic bullets that solve the lack of women in tech issue, they do enable employers to tap into a talent stream that has been difficult to access in the past, believes Anouska Ramsay, talent director at Capgemini UK.

The IT consultancy introduced a pilot scheme called “[email protected] in May this year as part of a wider initiative exploring how to create a more inclusive workforce. The aim was to support people in coming back to work after a career break by providing them with structured, practical help prior to an interview.

As a result, the company partnered with mentoring and support organisation Women Returners, which mentored the participants and helped to train the firm’s hiring managers both in how to handle the interview process effectively and how best to support individuals without recent workplace experience.

The opportunity was then advertised on the Women Returners’ as well as CapGemini’s website but had to be removed quickly due to the sheer weight of applications. The next step was to match potential candidates with possible internal vacancies in areas such as software development and project management, before setting up an assessment day for seven successful contenders.

The event was attended by various managers who were members of the firm’s [email protected] support group and talked not just about how the organisation worked, but also their own personal experiences of being a returner too. They then took the applicants to see different parts of the business and offered them insights into working life there.

After receiving interview coaching to help brush up their skills and build their confidence, the women were then formally interviewed by a panel that included a return-to-work mum. Although not essential, she was considered helpful in understanding some of the challenges the women were facing. Ramsay explains:

“It was more of a concierge, handholding approach. While I initially thought internships were a good idea, our applicants were so diverse that there was no one-size-fits-all. The skills required for a project manager to get up to speed are quite different to those required by a Java developer so we felt that to try and throw everyone onto a single programme wouldn’t give them what they needed other than a sense of community. So we changed tack and decided to take a more personalised approach by tailoring learning and development to where they wanted to be in order to progress their career goals.

Business-as-usual approach

In the end, one of the candidates was hired to take on a project management role, but the aim is to take more of them on “in due course”. Over time though, the aim is to make the approach a more “business-as-usual” means of undertaking recruitment. Ramsay explains:

To do so, you have to provide hyper-care in the right places so that it works for everyone, both managers and applicants. While it’s vital to ensure everyone has a good candidate experience, it’s also important to give a bit more attention and concierge to returners in order to understand their special requirements. Although we already do it with graduates and apprenticeships, we’ve not spent so much time understanding the needs of this new talent pool, but it’s important to help us create a more inclusive culture.

As to how beneficial returnship schemes are likely to prove in terms of boosting the number of women in tech, Ramsay believes that “anything that adds to the whole gender agenda has to be a good thing”. But she adds:

This kind of scheme is additive. It’s not a magic bullet, but it is really important to do it as is anything that helps you to start thinking about how to broaden the types of people who apply to the organisation. I don’t think it will bring in huge volumes of women, but it could help to rebalance the gender equation a bit and it’s very important for engagement. That’s because it sends out a positive message both internally and externally that we value you for what you are, not for your commitments, or lack of them, outside of work.

In the second part of our series on returnships, O2 is a use study around what it is doing to attract returners of both genders and why.