In the UK, there are over 420,000 professional women on a career break who want to return to work at some point (and this is only women who are not earning and taking a caring-related break). Given the variety of experience, length of career break, reason for break, and so on, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all route back. The path you choose depends very much on your own experience and personal situation.
One route back to work is via a specific returner programme within an organisation, usually a ‘returnship’ or ‘supported hiring’ programme. If you are looking to return to full-time or part-time employment, this path can work well, as it provides specific support and training for people who have been on a long career break (typically 2 or more years at the time the programme starts).
What is the difference between a returnship and a supported hiring programme?
While both target returners, and both offer a supported transition, the main difference is the structure of the programme:
- A returnship is a higher-level internship for experienced professionals returning to work following an extended career break. It is a fixed-term contract (usually between 3 and 6 months), with a strong possibility but not a guarantee of a permanent job at the end of the programme. Typically, returners start as a cohort at the same time in the year.
- Supported hiring, a concept created by Women Returners in 2015, brings you in to permanent roles from Day One. Companies may open all their roles on this basis, or may select those roles that do not require up-to-date skills and experience. Some supported hire returners start as a cohort but more usually roles are offered on a rolling basis, with individuals starting at different times.
Advantages of a returner programme
Let’s start with the advantages that apply to both programmes:
- Support: Key people will be made available to support you internally. As well as your Line Manager, there is usually a Programme Manager and often an internal mentor. For Women Returners programme partners, you will also receive our structured Career Returners Coaching Programme, led by one of our returner coaches, during the transition period.
- Variety: While returnships were only pioneered by Women Returners in the UK in 2014, and supported hires in 2015, the number of programmes has grown significantly, and they are now starting to cover a wide range of sectors, including finance, tech, construction, telecoms, and local and central government.
- Suitable-level work: Returners can sometimes lack the confidence to apply for jobs at a similar level to their pre-break role, which can lead to boredom and frustration. Returnships and supported hires are designed to support you back to a role in which you can utilise your former skills and experience and work at a similar level as you did in your previous career. You may get back to this level immediately or, if you’ve had a very long break, there should be a plan to help you to get back to where you were.
- Professional salary: Unlike some other routes back to work, such as entrepreneurship, strategic volunteering and freelancing, both returnships and supported hires offer a guaranteed salary, which is in line with the professional nature of the work.
Which is the better option?
There are pros and cons to each, and the choice you make depends on your own situation.
- Trial period: If you’ve been out of the workplace for a long time, this could be the perfect way to test out a return to work to see if it is the right decision for you. This is particularly important if you have childcare / eldercare to consider, as it gives everyone the opportunity to try a new routine. It’s also a great way of finding out if a new sector/organisation/role is a good fit for you before committing.
- Group support: You are likely to join as part of a returner cohort, giving you a ready-made peer support network. With a larger group, the induction and training programme may also be more structured.
- Returner competition only: Returnship programmes are only open to people who are returning from a career break, which means that you are not competing with people who have not taken a career break.
- Uncertainty: A returnship is not just a trial for you, but also for the company. This means that there is an element of uncertainty as you won’t know for a few months whether you will be offered a permanent role. This can also make it harder to organise any caring cover you may need. [If you don’t transition to a permanent job within the organisation for any reason, you will still gain fresh skills, recent experience and a new work network]
- Integration challenges: It may be harder to fully integrate into the team when your longer-term position is unclear.
- Certainty: The greatest benefit is that supported hiring roles are permanent from the start, meaning that you can make more long-term plans both within the organisation and in your home life.
- Immediate integration: If you join a company through a supported hire programme, you are viewed by your colleagues as ‘just another’ new joiner, with a clearly defined role within the team.
- Competition from non-returners: While a few supported hire roles are ring-fenced for returners, most are open to non-returners too, meaning that you are competing against people with recent experience for the job.
- No trial: You don’t have the structured fixed-term test period you would have for a returnship.
- Less structured support: Most supported hires join individually, rather than as a peer group, so the support may be more ad-hoc.
If you would like to read about some real-life experiences of returnships and supported hiring programmes, read the many return-to-work stories on our website.
Finally, if you haven’t already done so, please do sign up to our free network if you would like to find out about the latest returnships and supported hire roles.
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