‘Returnships’ support female engineers in the workplace after career breaks
07 November 2017
Initiatives like the STEPS programme are in place across our schools and universities to encourage female students into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but what is available to support those talented women who took a break from the corporate world mid-career to look after their children or elderly relatives?
The numbers are significant. According to the most recent Irish census data, female workforce participation during the ages of 35 and 55 years is 72%, some 20% lower than for men. Recent studies also show that 75% of women wish to return to work after a career break, when the time is right.
However, the common thread in the return-to-work stories that we hear is that it takes time and perseverance. Kate, who returned to work at Skanska UK as a senior engineer after a seven-year break, said, “For a while during my career break, I didn’t think I’d be able to find a suitable role in engineering and considered retraining.”
Returners often suffer from reduced self-confidence and also hit structural barriers to resuming their professional careers. Employers and recruitment agencies are often biased against well-qualified candidates with a career gap, seeing them as higher risk than lower-skilled employees currently in employment. They discount the range of valuable life experiences gained while on career break and falsely assume that their skills have eroded.
We have heard many stories of engineers and tech professionals being sifted out at the initial selection stage, purely because of their lack of recent experience. This means it can be a long and often demoralising journey for engineers and technical professionals to get back to work.
According to 2016 research carried out by PwC, in conjunction with the 30% Club and Women Returners, of those that come back, three in five may move into a lower skilled or lower-paid role than the job they had before, reducing their earnings by up to a third and exacerbating the gender pay gap.
Steps to get back to work
At Women Returners, we have been supporting professional women to get back to fulfilling work in the UK for a number of years now. From our experience, one of the most common ‘returner’ mistakes is to launch straight into an unfocussed job search. This approach has a low likelihood for success and is more likely to dent fragile self-confidence than get someone back to a satisfying job.
We suggest the following steps to a more productive route back to work:
- Start by getting clear about the type of role and organisation you want to target. What energises and motivates you? What have been your favourite elements of your previous jobs? Do you prefer managerial or technical roles, operational or strategic work? Do you prefer well-structured organisations or start-ups? Use this thinking to identify the types of activity and environment that suit you best.
- Next is to consider when and where you would like to work. Identify the commute you are willing to undertake and the hours you want to work. Be clear what is the ideal for you and then consider where you might compromise for the right role. Recent research by Timewise finds that the majority of employers are open to some forms of flexible working, even though this is rarely stated in a job description. Always consider the business case and propose workable solutions to your potential employer – think outside the box for solutions that work for the company and you.
- Make sure you know how to sell yourself. Write down all your strengths and skills, as well as your experience and qualifications. Ask friends and family for feedback on great things you have done and use those stories to pick out others skills. Practise talking about yourself with colleagues; this will help you be more confident with strangers and come across more professionally at interviews.
- Get up-to-date with your sector vocabulary and trends. Start reading articles in publications like EngineersJournal.ie and SiliconRepublic.com, and follow employers that interest you on Twitter and LinkedIn. It is also a great idea to meet ex-colleagues and discuss what is going on for them, and the current challenges and opportunities. Many of our engineering returners have found postgraduate study to be valuable, affording upskilling along with networking and experience opportunities.
- Many mid-to-senior roles in Ireland are filled through the hiring manager’s network, so your contacts are important. Start by crafting your ‘career story’. Outline your pre-break work experience and qualifications. Give a brief explanation of your break – do not apologise or justify – and do mention any relevant study, projects or volunteering. Finish with a short description of the type of work you are now targeting. Then get networking! Tell friends, family and acquaintances what you are looking for, as you never know who might have just the right contact for you. Update your LinkedIn profile and use it to reconnect with former colleagues. Join industry groups and attend professional seminars and conferences, volunteering to help if you cannot afford the cost.
Each of these steps supports the rebuilding of your professional network. You can find more tips and inspiring success stories from other returners at www.womenreturners.ie.
Change the conversation around returners
In the UK, we have succeeded in starting to change the conversation around returners. Employers in sectors from construction to telecoms are recognising that this high-calibre and motivated group can help to increase gender and age diversity and fill talent gaps. As Julie Thornton, head of human resources at Tideway, the London infrastructure project, said, “We’ve learned to look past the gap to the skills.”
Central to this change of employer mindset has been the introduction of ‘returnships’, higher-level paid internships tailored to create a supported route back to mid-to-senior level roles for returning professionals. Returnships range from three to six months, with a strong possibility of an ongoing role at the end. Employers get access to an untapped high-calibre candidate pool, with the opportunity of a built-in trial period to reduce the perceived risk.
Returners take on professionally paid work using their existing skills and experience and they receive support from the employer in terms of training, mentoring and often coaching to enable them to rapidly rebuild their professional confidence and skills.
One of the returners on the Balfour Beatty Programme was Antje Budge. Antje is an incorporated civil engineer with experience in the water and transport sectors. Antje took a nine-year career break to bring up her two young children. During her break, she joined the local branch of the Institution of Civil Engineers. This enabled her to keep a connection with the industry and to continue networking.
However, when she decided to return to work, she found it difficult to find suitable part-time work. The Returners Programme offered by Balfour Beatty was the first role she saw which ticked the boxes of a technical role, as well as being part-time.
Antje told us, “The company was open to discussions around flexible and part-time working, which really helped with my transition back into work.”
Antje found the coaching sessions provided by Women Returners as part of the programme to be a real help. “We were given really good advice on how to overcome challenges during our first days and weeks. We also had the chance to think about potential stumbling blocks and came away with some great tools, like how to use LinkedIn effectively to network.”
Antje is happy to be back at work in a role that utilises her training and experience: developing her skills within design co-ordination and management. Antje’s advice for other women returning to work? She found that doing some construction-related volunteering gave her something relevant to include on her CV and helped her to keep up to speed with developments in the industry.
Women Returners in Ireland
We are now taking our learnings from the UK market to introduce returner programmes into Ireland in a way that works for business and returners. We are already partnering with organisations like Fidelity International to pilot returnship programmes in Dublin.
If your organisation is concerned about skills gaps or diversity at mid-to-senior levels, we would be happy to explain the business case for hiring returners and the returnship model as a mutually-beneficial way to target a valuable new group of talented employees.
If you are a returner, you can subscribe to our free network at www.womenreturners.ie and can access our back to work resource toolkit, read more returner success stories as well as be the first to hear about new returnship opportunities as they come on stream in Ireland.
Elaine Russell is head of Women Returners in Ireland and Julianne Miles is the co-founder and managing director of Women Returners. Women Returners is a consulting, coaching and network organisation that works with individuals and organisations to enable the return to work of experienced professionals after a long career break.